Stan & Ollie is a very sweet love story. It’s not a story about lovers, but it has a lot in common with familiar tales of long married couples struggling to hold their relationship together in their twilight years.
The sense of romance is heightened by Oliver Hardy’s commonly used nickname “Babe” and by the protagonists’ habit of holding hands—although the latter was not uncommon among close friends in earlier times. There’s not the slightest hint of a sexual aspect to this relationship. It’s a “marriage” between intimate friends whose relationship has survived the decades.
It occurs to me that most people under the age of 50 have only the vaguest familiarity with who Laurel and Hardy were.
From 1926-1950, Englishman Stan Laurel and American Oliver Hardy teamed to make 72 silent or sound short films and 35 full-length features. Veterans of the vaudeville stages, the duo’s popularity rivaled the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges during the Hollywood heyday of physical slapstick comedy. Stanley’s sweet, gentle, man-child provided the perfect foil for Ollie’s tubby, blustering, and equally forlorn dandy. The pair, eternally optimistic in the face of almost certain disaster, were revered by movie audiences throughout Europe and America.
Stan & Ollie tells the story of the legendary duo’s post-WW II tour of theater stages in England, Scotland and Ireland. Advancing age, declining popularity, illness and the stress created by decades of trying to maintain a creative balance between two brilliant performers provide the necessary dramatic tension.
While Stan & Ollie is well-written and is competently directed by Jon S. Baird, a veteran of numerous British television productions, the strength of the movie lies in the portrayal of the four leading characters.
John C. Reilly, wearing a fat suit, is outstanding as a fading Oliver Hardy—looking for one more adoring crowd. It’s great to see Reilly in something other than yet another lame Will Ferrell shtick, and to be reminded of what a fine actor he is. Boogie Nights is a classic and Walk Hard; The Dewey Cox Story is one of my all-time favorite movie parodies. Reilly’s Ollie may not be up to those standards, but he’s good.
Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel is even better. While the Englishman has made a fist-full of British TV appearances and indie films, Coogan is probably best known to American audiences for his voice work in the Despicable Me\Minions franchise and The Secret Life of Pets.
Stan Laurel was a more complex individual than Oliver Hardy. Hardy loved his life as one-half of Laurel and Hardy. Laurel, a distinguished character actor, had collaborated with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, before teaming with Hardy. Stan wrote, directed and choreographed most Laurel and Hardy skits and was intimately involved with the business side of the duo’s career. While he chafed under the sweet, fragile, imbecile persona of his comedic character, he also loved his old friend. Coogan does a wonderful job conveying this melancholy catch-22.
In a bit of irony, Shirley Henderson as the protective Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel actually carry many of the film’s comedic scenes. Arianda’s self-aggrandizing off-hand one liners, delivered in a thick, but not too cheesy, Russian accent are especially effective. The point that’s repeatedly reinforced is that the thrice-married Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel leaned on the strong women in their loving marriages during a difficult period in their lives.
My one criticism of Stan & Ollie is that I wish the film had been a bit longer and more ambitious. At 97 minutes, the movie left me feeling that there was a good tale untold.
I almost never leave a theater thinking, “geez, I wish that had been 15 minutes longer.” I appreciate that the filmmakers had a specific story they wanted to tell and that the direction and editing keep to that narrative very tightly.
However, the opening scene that takes places 16 years before our main story unfolds is almost perfunctory. It alludes to the duo’s popularity at the height of their powers, but just barely. The names of a few contemporaries that are dropped in passing are probably more obscure than Laurel and Hardy.
An extra 10 minutes at the beginning of the film would have given us a better sense of how far their decline had come. Which would have made for a better, and likely more popular, movie.