I love slapstick comedy, and because I love slapstick comedy I love Laurel and Hardy, the masters of it. I’ve got my dad to thank for that. The makers of STAN & OLLIE clearly love Laurel and Hardy too, and that affection and respect really comes across in a straightforward, heartwarming but by no means schmaltzy way.
After years of declining popularity, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) embark on a European tour with the hope that the profile and profits will revitalise their career in Hollywood. But the tour takes its toll on their health and their relationship, and the crowds turning out for the early shows are underwhelming to put it mildly.
I listened to an interview with Stan & Ollie’s director Jon S Baird where he talked about the leads’ different methods of getting to the essence of their characters. Coogan started with the voice and built Stan’s character outwards whereas Reilly needed to move in his fatsuit before he could build Ollie’s character inwards. You very quickly forget that it’s not actually Laurel and Hardy you’re watching, the precision timing of the routine recreations, Reilly’s spot-on Ollie bounce and Coogan’s aimless amble as Stan.
They have such real chemistry, easy and natural as they hang out back stage as you’d have with any long friendship, slick and effortless on stage in a way you could only get from years rehearsing, performing and captivating audiences. You feel like you’re intruding on very private moments when they’re out of costume, worrying about money and spending time with their wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, both excellent) and it feels odd when the personas are, if not switched all the way off, then certainly turned way down.
There are plenty of pleasing little details in there for the fans, like seeing Stan removing his shoe heels to assist with his character’s distinctive walk and the pair’s ceaseless efforts to indulge their fans out in the world with their iconic catchphrases and character quirks and even recreating entire sequences for the film just as Laurel and Hardy did for their tour.
Long-running and popular characters often take on a life of their own and in a stroke of genius Stan and Ollie are shown to fall back on their comedy personas in their real lives as a security blanket, as Ollie turns on the bumbling charm shopping for jewellery for his wife he can’t afford or Laurel trying to look innocent and vacant as he plots to get into the office of a movie producer.
Jeff Pope’s script has some sharp one-liners, like Stan’s promise that, “I’m not marrying again, I’ll just find a woman I don’t like and buy her a house!” Coogan is given plenty of room to improv too, and Stan’s habit of constantly running lines and trying out new gags often has him come out with something spontaneously hilarious, usually to someone’s back.
The only scene I didn’t buy was what was clearly meant to be the dramatic turning point in the story. Stan and Ollie’s big public bust-up feels staged, over-scripted and very obviously is meant to be “the moment”. This is perhaps the only moment when Pope could have done with dialling it back and resisting the impulse to do “the biopic thing”.
Stan & Ollie delivers just what you want from a biopic of an iconic pair. Where it could have been broad and general it’s instead tightly focussed on the contrasting highest and lowest points of Laurel and Hardy’s careers and presenting the events we know, the events that happened that we didn’t know and the events that didn’t happen but work for the story, with wit and vitality. Coogan and Reilly have rarely, if ever, been better, equally at home as Laurel and Hardy performing or living their own lives. SSP