Friday 13 September 2019

Stan & Ollie ★★★☆☆

I was never a big Laurel & Hardy fan growing up. I know, I know, that’s a very controversial thing to say – they are certainly sacred figures in the comedy community. But I was always in the Marx Brothers camp or Buster Keaton. Still, I’ve always respected Laurel & Hardy’s craft, and when the new biographical comedy-drama Stan & Ollie from Filth director Jon S Baird was released, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the people behind the legend – reflected indeed by the title not being Laurel & Hardy and instead focusing on the real Stan & Ollie.

This is not a thorough biopic of their entire lives and careers but rather is focused primarily on their later period. Diminished by age, the duo set out to reconnect with their adoring fans by touring variety halls in Britain in 1953. The shows become a hit after a rocky start, but Stan and Ollie can't quite shake the past as long-buried tension and Hardy's failing health start to threaten their precious partnership. 

On the surface, the film is absolutely a loving tribute to the iconic pair from a team who clearly feel nothing but admiration for their subjects. The scenes recreating iconic film scenes or stage performances are so uncannily recreated that it is scary – the film features some of the most spot-on recreations I’ve seen in a biopic in some time.

This is of course aided by a pair of utterly stellar performances at the heart of the film – Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Ollie Hardy. Coogan continues to prove himself as a truly underrated drama actor, delivering an understated and eerily uncanny performance as one half of the beloved duo. John C. Reilly’s stellar performance is also no surprise – despite a minor hiccup with Holmes & Watson, Reilly has a phenomenal year with The Sisters Brothers and Ralph Breaks The Internet. His performance here only strengthens his superb year as he utterly transforms into Ollie; granted, with the aid of a fat suit and some remarkable facial prosthetics.

But while Stan & Ollie excels in performance and the clear passion for its subject, it dips somewhat in other areas. While there is nothing wrong with the film per se, there’s nothing else of note either. This is very much a by-the-numbers biographical film, filled with cliché and very little originality in the portrayal of events. I often mention Bill Pohlad’s incredible Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy at times like this – now that is how you shake up the genre. Portraying two parallel timelines side-by-side with a different actor playing your subject in each, that’s just an example of how you can do things a little differently. Stan & Ollie on the other hand just does things in the exact same way that many other biopics have before it, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve just seen it all before.

Still, the film’s performances are enough to recommend it. This is a character study really, and when our two main characters are portrayed so wonderfully, it’s difficult to grumble too much. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are remarkable in the film and the film does offer an interesting insight into what made the duo tick, and how they never let any tension between them get in the way of a good gag – and the film certainly serves as a reminder that their comedy is timeless.

Sam Love

Stan & Ollie at CeX

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