Stan & Ollie
The impact of the comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy on early cinema cannot be underestimated. Their trademark look and goofy mannerisms delighted audiences for decades. When the films were silent, physical pratfalls reigned, yet the two managed to succeed well into the sound era, mixing Vaudevillian song and softshoe routines. Stan & Ollie celebrates the pair, writing an unabashed love letter to this era of entertainment.
The affection for the two is infectious, attributable to some highly sympathetic performances by Steve Coogan as the lanky Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly under prosthetics as the corpulent Oliver Hardy. They dance, both literally and metaphorically, as a duo, tracing the later part of these comedians’ careers as their world was in uproar. With one final hurrah, they embark on a tour, hoping to generate interest from producers for a big movie comeback.
In some ways, this film itself echoes the challenges of its protagonists. We see plenty of scenes of paltry yet committed audiences guffawing at what can clearly be thought of as old hat shtick. Unlike the acrobatics of a Keaton, the melancholic wit of a Chaplin, or the acerbic wordplay of the brothers Marx, the kind of entertainment that Laurel and Hardy parlayed felt out of date nearly a century ago. Its resuscitation feels even more disconnected from modern audiences.
Coogan’s Laurel grants more opportunity for some of the classic clowning to emerge, while Reilly’s role veers into melodrama. Still, at moments where we see things connect, such as a simple yet effective door routine, one can more readily embrace their comedic skills. The overwrought audience reaction aside, it’s a matter of understanding intellectually what passed as popular culture, rather than fully falling for the antics.
This divide, along with a predictable storyline, makes Stan & Ollie a decidedly middlebrow bio-pic. Its maudlin moments outweigh the truly impactful, and everything feels more than a bit safe. All the intent to expose the talents to new generations falters with the pedestrian staging and run-of-the-mill telling.
We’re left with an average, forgettable look at entertainers that feels both stale and unmotivated. The film lacks any real bite and fails to find a hook to draw contemporary audiences in. Focusing on the road trip at the end of their careers makes the nostalgia even more treacly, where the churning of the early film era may have been more ripe for actual drama.
Like its subject, Stan & Ollie is affable enough, the kind of trifle that in times past may have worked perfectly fine for audiences only expecting something to take them away from the travails of their day. With exceptional talents in the lead roles, the film has a spark of what could have been, but the generic direction and a storyline that easily could have made for a simple television program leaves not much to elevate the work to cinematic levels.