Stan & Ollie (2019)
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
From the director of Filth and the writer of Philomena comes a picture about the legends of cinema we all know and love to be Laurel & Hardy, Stan & Ollie, a film that has all the wit and charm of the double act’s greatest works but, like those films, fails to capture the imagination beyond the quality of its performances.
Central to the British produced exploration of the famous duo’s last days as a touring stage act across the British Isles, are the impressive performances of Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Hardy) who, while assisted by some excellent prosthetic work, establish themselves as the characters very early on and carry the charm and distinct personalities of each performer with a maturity and tenderness that acts as the heartbeat of Stan & Ollie’s appeal.
The very subtle habits and performance traits of each famous man is brought to life in the intricacies of Coogan and Reilly’s performances, with Reilly offering his larger character an elegance not quite reached by his smaller partner while on stage or film, while Coogan effectively matches the iconic stumbling walking style of Laurel while also capturing the playfulness of his facial expressions. Each man gifts the film their own brand of unique appeal, Coogan perhaps offering the most typically recognisable of top performances but Reilly bringing his own sense of child-like innocence and happiness to the picture in a manner entirely worthy of paying tribute to such famous, beloved performers.
Stan & Ollie is surprisingly a film underpinned by a strong sense of tragedy – tragedy that we never truly appreciated the talents of the famous double act in their latter careers and tragedy in how each of them was entirely reliant upon one another to the point of death. It’s an aspect of the picture well managed on all levels, with the supporting characters of the duo’s late wives Lucille and Ida being the entry level to many of the narrative beats that would later come to fruition, their own presences in the film being just as entertaining as the central partnership. At one stage, the tour manager for Laurel & Hardy suggests to party guests that “it’s two double acts for the price of one” and in many respects that was the case with Stan & Ollie, Lucille & Ida being wholly watchable and lovable in their own right, the performances of Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda also being vastly important to the film’s overall tone.
Unfortunately, for all of Stan & Ollie’s charm and watchability, the film never truly takes off to a point beyond that of a faithful, well performed biopic; somewhat fittingly living by the Laurel & Hardy mantra of being entertaining but lacking that certain something to make it artistically invigorating. In most respects, this truly is an actor’s film, the performances living up to such a responsibility, but the rest of the picture failing to go beyond the level of well produced television, indeed feeling very paint-by-numbers at several stages.
Stan & Ollie is, then, an entertaining and wonderfully performed picture surrounding two truly fascinating subjects whose means of entertainment has been paid homage to in a faithful and well intentioned manner, but it lacks in depth. This is a film that’s bound to leave you feeling happy, entertained and even well informed but it shan’t be sticking around in your head for long after you see it.