Editor KC Wingert reviews Jon S. Baird’s homage to the Hollywood comedy duo.
One of my favourite childhood pastimes was going to my grandfather’s house and watching old Laurel and Hardy films on VHS. I’d sit on the floor with my Gramps, almost 70 years my senior, both of us belly-laughing at the top comedic duo of the Golden Age’s unique brand of humour. I practically worshipped Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—their slapstick act and cartoonish physicality were so entertaining that, 60 years after their heyday in Hollywood, a ‘90s baby like me preferred to watch their films over Saturday morning kids’ programming. Much to my chagrin, the average movie fanatic today might not be as familiar with Laurel and Hardy as they are with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, their comedy contemporaries. (Fun fact: Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin toured together with Fred Karno’s vaudeville company before they started working in film and were roommates for much of the tour). Hope is not lost, however, for fangirls like me; with the recent release of Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, the duo is once again being recognised for their timeless genius. The Jon S. Baird-directed biopic not only captures the comedic brilliance of Laurel and Hardy, but also tells a feelgood story of love and affection between two old friends.
Stan & Ollie finds Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) about 20 years after their run as the top comedic duo in Hollywood, reunited for a live theatre tour of the British Isles. Broke and unable to find work in film anymore, the pair hopes the tour will regain them enough career momentum to convince a major London producer to work with them on their film adaptation of the Robin Hood story. Their live performances garner great audience reactions and, after several successful press ops played in character, Stan and Ollie’s careers start to gain traction again. When their wives Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) visit them, however, old rifts begin to widen between the men.
The injection of serious conflict in the otherwise cheeky rapport between Stan and Ollie begs the question of whether their relationship is a true friendship or simply a long-lasting business partnership. The concerns their wives have for their well-being, both emotional and physical, complicate the story well. Disagreements between the duo are gut-wrenching to watch, yet, in homage to the spirit of the real Laurel and Hardy, writer Jeff Pope punctuates these emotional moments with genuinely hilarious jokes. Moreover, Ida and Lucille become a sort of comedic duo themselves with their catty quarrels and equally strong personalities—expertly portrayed by Arianda and Henderson, who nearly steal the show. Pope manages to bring humour and lightheartedness to moments of sobering conflict and emotional depth, ultimately leaving viewers chuckling just a few moments after dabbing their eyes from tears.
Outside of the delightfully told story, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly’s performances are the ultimate strength of this film. Each actor absolutely masters the idiosyncrasies of Laurel and Hardy, from their distinctive voices to their characteristic facial expressions. Laurel and Hardy are known for their impeccable comedic timing and perfectly refined slapstick act; Coogan and Reilly clearly put in the rehearsal hours to mimic some of the duo’s most famous performances. Coogan’s perfectly measured brow-wiggling and Reilly’s harrumphing, along with extremely convincing prosthetic makeup, allow the pair to perfectly embody their subjects, to the point where an audience might genuinely forget that it is in fact watching the actors behind Alan Partridge and Dewey Cox.
Ultimately, Stan & Ollie is a masterful biopic not only because of its incredibly realistic portrayal of an iconic Hollywood duo, but also because it exemplifies the transgenerational appeal of the comedy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This pair brought joy and laughter to so many people during their careers, and Jon S. Baird’s latest film is proof that the brilliance of Laurel and Hardy stands the test of time. Audiences of all ages will delight in this thoughtful and heartwarming comedy—“a fine mess,” indeed.
Stan & Ollie is currently out in cinemas right now. Check out its trailer below: