Stan & Ollie (UK-Canada-US, 2018)

Steve & John

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are extraordinary as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. The 23 people that make up the makeup department also need to take a bow because great as Steve and John are, the preternatural likeness of their appearance is as crucial to the film’s success. Jon S. Baird’s direction and Jeff (Philomena) Pope’s script are also important ingredients in portraying the twilight years of the duo on tour in the UK.

I’m not a fan of biopics as they often cram key moments into a narrative making the film seem one set piece after another. So despite Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance as Edith Piaf, I was desperate for her to die so La Vie en Rose (France-UK-Czech Republic, 2007) would end. Through focusing on a few weeks, with a preface set 16 years earlier for context, Stan & Ollie successfully conveys the duo’s brilliance and their friendship. The film is encased in a deep melancholy about fading footlights and fading life; Ollie, in particular, is ill and Stan’s wife, in an effort to protect him, constantly downs his drinks: “It’s funny, the more I drink, the drunker my wife gets,” he says. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson also excel as the duo’s duelling wives.

The preface, in 1937, is set during the filming of the classic Way Out West (1937) and explains how producer Hal Roach’s contract ensured they weren’t as well paid as, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Pope’s script, however, makes it clear that numerous divorces and gambling was also a reason they were on their uppers, touring smaller theatres and desperately trying to get a new film off the ground in 1953.

Their performances on the tour featured sketches from their films, such as the ‘hard boiled eggs and nuts’ from County Hospital (1932). Steve and John’s mimicry is such that during them, and I’ve seen Laurel and Hardy’s films countless times, it seems that Stan and Ollie have been transformed into high definition colour. It takes conscious thought to recalibrate and think ‘Coogan and Reilly’ to allow the actors’ appearance and voices’ timbre to filter through.

Matthew Sweet’s article in Sight & Sound (Jan-Feb) makes it clear that the rapturous reception the duo receive in Ireland, toward the end of the film, didn’t happen but we can forgive Pope for fantasising how they should have ended their career. There are clearly plenty of fans still around (the shorts are shown on Talking Pictures in the UK) as it’s already taken £6m after two weekends in Britain and was apparently budgeted at a mere $10m. In my youth Laurel & Hardy shorts were dotted about BBC1’s schedules but the younger generation (if my twentysomething nephew is an accurate indicator) have never heard of them. It is their loss but I wonder to what extent you have to know Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Coogan and Reilly and the film.

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