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Stan & Ollie (2018) starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly

The last gasp of a classic comedy act

This semi-comedic biopic takes a look at the twilight years of iconic slapstick comedy duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). It also contains a flashback or two to the former’s contract dispute with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) which put an end to their golden era of such classic shorts as The Music Box (1932).

The rest of the film takes place during the 1950s when they perform a theatre tour of the UK and Ireland organised by Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). While Laurel dreams up ideas for an adaptation of Robin Hood which he hopes will provide them with a big screen comeback, Hardy struggles through putting a brave face on his own health issues. Their respective spouses, Ida Laurel (Nina Arlanda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), arrive just as their tour hits London. However, despite their loved one’s dogged support, Laurel and Hardy’s long-standing and affectionate relationship is marred by an old disagreement.

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Does it do justice to Laurel and Hardy?

The challenge for any portrayal of the life and works Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is, of course, that the original performers and material were such untouchable comedy genius that the imitation is bound to fall in their shadows. Having said that, Stan & Ollie doesn’t fare too badly and at least provides some reminders of what made them so special in the first place.

It’s a film which rests largely on the broad shoulders of its two central performers. A heavily made-up John C. Reilly (who was nominated for a Golden Globe) perfectly captures both Oliver Hardy’s surly, long-suffering comedy gestures and his gentle giant nature in the flesh. Steve Coogan isn’t quite on the same level as Stan Laurel, largely because he always appears too obviously to be just that: Coogan impersonating Laurel. However, that’s not to say that his work here is bad; he turns in a fine performance as an impassioned, determined creative who struggles to recognise when it’s time to let go. Moreover, the two actors have a real sense of chemistry and rapport together, just like Laurel and Hardy did in real life. Their various homages to original duo’s classic comedy routines succeed in being amusing enough to avoid us resenting that they are not the real thing. The sadder, more pathos-laden scenes are also genuinely touching.

Stan & Ollie (2018)

Although predictably sidelined by the two male stars, Nina Arlanda and Shirley Henderson are decent as their respective onscreen spouses. Arlanda is quite funny in her somewhat bossy portrayal of Stan Laurel’s Russian-born wife Ida. Shirley Henderson has been given less to do as Lucille Hardy but her innate concerns about her husband’s wellbeing during his advanced years come across well.

On the other hand, Stan & Ollie never quite rises above the level of “good” to that of “great”. The main weakness here is that it feels like the producers, BBC Films, had intended for it to be shown on one of their TV channels rather than on the big screen. While the period details are generally authentic, the production has a constrained air about it which betrays the limited (reportedly $10 million) budget. There’s also one scene which supposedly takes place in a Glasgow street but the architecture looks distinctly different from that in the city in question (it was, in fact, shot in London’s Covent Garden district). Jon S. Baird’s direction is adequate but lacks inspiration, largely sitting back to let the leading actors and Rolfe Kent’s suitably stirring score move the audience. He manages a few lengthy tracking shots but that’s pretty much it in terms of a visual stamp.

However, Laurel and Hardy fans shouldn’t be overly put off by my criticisms. It’s a bittersweet, poignant and amusing viewing experience which works largely thanks to Reilly and Coogan’s performances.

Runtime: 97 mins

Dir: Jon S. Baird

Script: Jeff Pope

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arlanda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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