“Stan & Ollie” is a loving, heartfelt hagiography that’s as comfy and inoffensive as one of its titular duo’s comedic acts. Indeed, long stretches of the tidy 97-minute …
“Stan & Ollie” is a loving, heartfelt hagiography that’s as comfy and inoffensive as one of its titular duo’s comedic acts. Indeed, long stretches of the tidy 97-minute running time are spent recreating the routines of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, on- and off-stage. There’s a delightful soft-shoe they perform during the film “Way Out West.” There’s a confusing bit of misdirection as they attempt to rendezvous at a train station. And, of course, there’s their famous catch-phrase, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!,” and their theme song, “The Dance of the Cuckoos.”
If nothing else, director Jon S. Baird’s mellow material sheds a much-deserved spotlight back on nearly forgotten comedy geniuses, once two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Laurel & Hardy appeared together in over one-hundred films that bridged the silent film era to talkies. Their formula was straightforward: slapstick involving a fat man and his short, skinny pal. But as Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope reinforce, their success was more than simple silliness. The English-born Laurel and Georgia-born Hardy, the son of a Confederate veteran, were opposites who produced acute alchemy together.
The film opens with a six-minute tracking shot set in 1937, at the height of Laurel & Hardy’s popularity. The duo walk about Hal Roach Studios, discussing their daily lives and careers before Laurel (Steve Coogan) confronts Roach over a contract dispute and then he and Hardy (John C. Reilly) film the “Way Out West” dance sequence. The film then segues to 1953, with a much-older Laurel and Hardy arriving in Great Britain for a stage-show tour they hope will fuel a comeback film, a Robin Hood spoof named “Rob ‘Em Good.” It’s been eight years since their last studio picture, and the two find themselves playing to sparse houses in third-rate theaters. However, their aging diehard fans are out there, and once Laurel and Hardy accept the indignity of doing a plethora of PR, the crowds grow and propel the tour all the way to London’s Lyceum Theater and beyond.
However, Laurel learns early on that funding for his pie-in-the-sky film project has dried up, yet keeps that info from his partner until a failing heart pushes Hardy to the edge of retirement mid-tour. That anxiety exposes fissures in their relationship, a professional success that never fully translated to personal respect. The friction extends to their oil-and-water spouses, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda), who exchange their own barbs along the way.
Still, the narrative tension never rises above a simmer, as “Stan & Ollie” doesn’t want to risk tarnishing its protagonists’ halo. Indeed, the stage is never far removed from the film’s vision of reality. Baird projects slapstick routines into Laurel and Hardy’s everyday lives, like a sequence where they struggle to lug luggage upstairs. And while Coogan and Reilly’s physical performances are sublime, their dialogue delivery often sounds like an extension of their stilted, vaudevillian diction, as if actors from that era spoke during everyday life the same way they did on the sound stage.
The net effect is to negate the notion that we’re delving deep into the psyche of either comedian. Instead, “Stan & Ollie” is a sweet salute to two superstars and the ups and downs of their stardom. It’s also a film that's not nearly as elaborate as the average Laurel & Hardy gag.