As an audience member, watching a biographical film about someone whose work you’re only passingly familiar with is an interesting proposition. Will the film provide me with information about who the subjects of the film were? Or will it tell me an engaging story using the biographical details of the subjects? Or will it simply lay out a specific series of events which are engaging because they’re, supposedly, true?
Stan & Ollie tries to be a mix of the first two, taking opportunities to let the audience know that Laurel & Hardy were, in their day, a big deal and using their tour of the United Kingdom in the 1950s as a way to explore the bonds of friendship and partnership and how we move beyond a falling out.
After a brief introduction to Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) to establish their friendship, introduce the tensions that forced them apart, and demonstrate their popularity at the height of their fame, the film skips forward 16 years to the 1950s where the pair are kicking off a reunion tour in the UK and attempting to get production moving on a new Robin Hood film.
There are some significant inaccuracies in the film to the actual lives of Laurel & Hardy for the sake of the narrative writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) wanted to tell, so this version of Laurel & Hardy are down on their luck and performing to small, half-empty, venues. The manager of the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), is quick-talking and manipulative, taking advantage of the older comedians at the expense of his popular up-and-comers.
Since the film focuses on a pair of vaudeville performers, there are sequences of ‘bits’ performed both on stage and off. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) makes interesting use of this to mirror the revitalisation of their careers, with the filming and side character reactions to them improving as the tour begins to take off, and yet also falling completely flat when one of the pair performs alone or to someone who’s not already a fan.
Nina Arianda (Goliath) and Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter, Trainspotting), as wives Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy respectively, are used as a reflection of Laurel & Hardy’s silly man / straight man dynamic to provide a little more of the necessary background at times and, although Arianda gets plenty of laughs, Henderson is left sadly underutilised.
Similarly, although the tensions of the film’s emotional conflict are introduced early and reinforced throughout, that strand of the story doesn’t really feel like it kicks off properly until quite late into the film, so it leaves the whole piece feeling a little uneven. Coogan and Reilly clearly have good chemistry as Laurel & Hardy, but too little time is given to showing them as friends before their mutual wounds are explored.
Certainly a fun film with some well-executed comedy routines included to boot, Stan & Ollie is a nice and easy exploration of friendship and the strains we can put it under.