Stan & Ollie
by Hope Madden
Wouldn’t it be nutty to peek behind the curtain of one of cinema’s most famous pairs—your Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Bert and Ernie—only to find that they are exactly as entertaining and likable in person as they are onscreen?
That’s actually part of what makes Stan & Ollie, Jon S. Baird’s loving biopic of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, so peculiar a film. Go in expecting demons, divas and drama and you will be disappointed. If you’re looking for a tender image of partnership and friendship struggling to overcome a harsh business, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The inexhaustible talent of John C. Reilly squeezes into a fat suit of Darkest Hour impressiveness as Oliver “Babe” Hardy. The physical transformation awes, but it’s the way the actor mines Hardy’s gentle good nature that impresses even more.
Coogan’s the real surprise. Not only is his resemblance to Stan Laurel almost eerie, but the performance is easily the best dramatic turn of his career.
Both actors, working from a wistful script by Coogan’s Philomena writing partner Jeff Pope, sidestep drama in favor of a kind of resigned camaraderie. Theirs is that well-worn relationship of both love and necessity that comes with decades of familiarity, unspoken grievances and love.
The actors’ chemistry is a fine match for that of the iconic duo, and through the pairing, Baird explores partnership in a more meaningful and less sentimental way than what you’d normally find in a “stars in their declining years” biopic.
The result is an endearing, if slightly underwhelming dramedy, enlivened by Baird’s charming direction. While the film is at its best when Coogan and Reilly quietly grapple with changes facing them, it is at its most enjoyable when art imitates life imitating art. That is, when Stan and Ollie drag a really big trunk up a big flight of stairs, only to let go of it, watch it slide back to the bottom, and do it again.
Like the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, this film is sweet, clever and entirely of another time.