Stan & Ollie Review – A Twilight Dance and a Grand Bromance
Director Jon S. Baird begins his fourth feature film with a step back to the Golden Era. It’s 1937, it’s Hollywood and it’s Stan & Ollie, or as they are better know, Laurel & Hardy. As the curtain rises we are greeted with a stunning opening scene. In one long continuous tracking shot Baird follows our comedic duo around the backlot of a film set giving us a tour of a bygone era. The costumes, the set and the atmosphere all screamed Old Hollywood Glamour and had me excited to dive in to the world of Studio System film and Classical Hollywood productions, I mean, I do love a bit of film history.
However we were quickly transported to post war UK for the comeback tour of Laurel & Hardy, with the remainder of the film taking place in England and Ireland. Stan & Ollie follows the comedy duo as they try to reignite their performance flame in hope of a new movie deal. They slog across the country performing at different variety halls which, for the first half of the film, are painfully low on box office (leading to a joke about ending the tour in Hull which, being an ‘Ullian myself, did cause me to let out a little snort-laugh in the cinema). The pair’s love for performing, entertaining and being with each other prevails in bringing them back to the top and is what caused them to be as iconic in the UK as they were in America.
I got over the disappointment after a few minutes but I did feel a little bit sad to be leaving the exotic and curious world of Hollywood so soon only to land myself in the all-too-familiar rainy and soggy imagery of Britain. The film’s focus is simply a snapshot of the duo’s lives and it hones in on their journey toward retirement, but I almost wanted more. It’s a sweet story and it saves the film from over-reaching (as many biopics do by trying to include 50 years worth of events into 90mins) but I would have loved just a little longer spent in their heyday.
This is a quirky and quite niche film that has a whimsical nature but doesn’t seem to follow through on actual humour. Of course if you don’t know a thing about Laurel & Hardy (like me) it can be a bit of a slog at points. At a post-performance dinner Stan and Ollie end up in a little tiff with each other that results in one of them taking a pork pie to the back of the head. An older woman at the party turns to her husband and asks “Was that funny?”, and that sums up a lot of my feeling toward the humour of the film. I understand this vaudevillian form of comedy but it simply wasn’t for me. As much as the heart was there, and the story did carry some beautiful moments across between the aging duo, I just couldn’t quite get to grasps with what this film wanted to portray about the two.
The shining highlight of this film is definitely in the performances which were brilliantly clever, clearly well rehearsed and researched, and passionately portrayed. John C. Reilly’s makeup was seamlessly done, looked absolutely perfect, and didn’t imper his emotional range. Steve Coogan juxtaposed Stan’s stoic businessman persona against his ‘little lost boy’ head scratching performer excellently. The duo had chemistry and some of the most sincere moments between male friends on screen that I have seen in a long time. It’s clearly a bromance for the ages.
Let us not forget the romances as well though. Shirley Henderson is Lucille Hardy, an affectionate, protective and just a little bit overbearing true 50’s lady. Nina Arianda is Ida Laurel, and opinionated, no filter no nonsense, hilarious former actress and model. Not that you’d know that, she never mentions it of course. These two are introduced towards the end of the film and they bring a whole new energy with them, a secondary comedy duo to their double-act partners. Once again I was left wanting more, I could have done with more scenes of Ida’s open mouthed honesty and Lucille’s sarcastic snideness. These ladies did things right.
Stan & Ollie holds a reserved and soft charm to it. It’s a simple and sweet story with a lot of heart that could have benefited from just a little bit more Hollywood sparkle. I managed to catch an advanced showing of this due to a Mystery Screening at my local cinema. It was exciting to not know what was coming but when the title card came up there was an audible groan from the audience. I didn’t get up and walk out like some other mystery attenders but I also wasn’t blown away. I’m happy that I stayed because it was something I wouldn’t have necessarily seen of my own volition, and in the end, it was a charming little film.
Side note while asking my partner what would be a good title for this post he replied with ‘Slapstick My Bitch Up’. I also considered ‘Slapstick My Babe Up’ as well, but I thought I’d take a slightly more grown-up approach (a rare and mysterious thing to me). Did I make a mistake?