Comedy may have evolved greatly over the years, but there are some gags that never grow old; likewise, there are some long-deceased figures whose work endures to this very day. Hoping to prove both of these statements correct is director Jon S. Baird’s biographical feature that celebrates a pair of actors who helped to define modern cinema.
Stanley Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy are two legends of comedy who have come to be the standard by which all other comedic duos are judged. They first made films during the silent era, entertaining millions with their slapstick shorts, before seamlessly making the transition to “talkies” with their verbal repartee – a feat which their contemporaries, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, would not accomplish, nor master, until many years after.
This picture follows the twosome in their twilight years, as they travel from America to embark upon a stage tour of Laurel’s (Steve Coogan) home country of Britain, hoping they can sell enough tickets to fund a new, feature-length Laurel & Hardy film. It’s a goal that seems doomed to fail from the very beginning, not just because of their age, but also because the obese Hardy (John C. Reilly) is in very poor health, and may not have the stamina to last their gruelling schedule.
Making matters worse is the duo’s hopeless agent, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) who has gifted the Hollywood icons with cheap accommodation, second-rate theatres, a lack of audiences and an even greater lack of publicity, giving them even less hope of making a profit. But as their tour continues, and word-of-mouth reaches the public, Laurel and Hardy find their fortunes beginning to turn, making them optimistic of securing a deal for their new movie.
The most remarkable aspect of Stan & Ollie is how closely its two leads embody the real-life figures they are portraying. Coogan, like Stan Laurel, proves to be a gifted physical comedian, with his movements perfectly-timed to be as funny as possible. Reilly, meanwhile, has to wear a fat-suit and heavy facial prosthetics to resemble Hardy, but has no problems speaking in his unique drawl. Additionally, Coogan and Reilly get to demonstrate their dramatic talents, being equally convincing when serious or sombre.
Because they share a strong, lifelike resemblance with Laurel and Hardy, the two leads are effortlessly able to re-create some of their most celebrated routines and sketches, which appear throughout Stan & Ollie – examples include Laurel visiting an incapacitated Hardy in the hospital ward, and the duo losing each other on a train platform. Every one of these sequences, surprisingly, proves amusing and delightful, despite them being decades-old.
Stan & Ollie may be a celebration of an iconic cinematic twosome, but ironically, viewers who aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy are the ones most likely to enjoy this film. Made with a broad audience in mind – as evidenced by the PG rating – the movie seeks to fascinate older viewers with its previously-untold story of friendship, and entertain the younger crowd with its physical comedy, which it does with aplomb. What’s more, it does so with a gentle, heartening tone.
In fact, for some, Stan & Ollie might be a little too safe and sweet. Even when tension between the two actors is at its peak, the pair remain unfathomably civil toward each other – what should be an emotionally-fraught moment is instead a muted argument that’s resolved within moments. It’s almost as though screenwriter Jeff Pope felt obligated to add some form of conflict, but couldn’t be bothered adding any weight to it. Regardless, it’s relieving to see a film where characters don’t resort to shouting at each other.
Stan & Ollie is a touching, funny portrait about two slapstick geniuses that should appeal to viewers of all ages. Anchored by a pair of performers who have transformed themselves into their historical counterparts, the film is an ideal introduction for people unfamiliar with Laurel and Hardy, yet just as enjoyable to those who are already fans of their work.
This review was first published by SYN Media on February 18th, 2019.