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Stan & Ollie Movie Review

Stan & Ollie (2018) movie poster Stan & Ollie

Theatrical Release: December 28, 2018 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Jon S. Baird / Writer: Jeff Pope

Cast: Steve Coogan (Stan Laurel), John C. Reilly (Oliver Hardy), Nina Arianda (Ida Kitaeva Laurel), Shirley Henderson (Lucille Hardy), Danny Huston (Hal Roach), Rufus Jones (Bernard Delfont)


Few people living today were alive during the heyday of Laurel and Hardy. Since the voices of the elderly tend to be among society's quietest, it is all the more impressive then that we know the names Laurel and Hardy. How we know them may not be super clear.
Perhaps they were depicted or caricatured in an old cartoon you know. You needn't have watched their short films or features to know that they were a popular comedy duo a long time ago. You probably know that one was portly and mustachioed, while the other was lean and clean-shaven and that they both wore bowler hats.

The new film Stan & Ollie, taken from the duo's less well-known first names, avoids standard biopic format in favor of something more intimate and interesting. It depicts the long and fruitful friendship of the lean Englishman Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and the rotund American Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). The film opens in 1937, when Laurel and Hardy are on top. Laurel's contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) is expiring and the pair is eager to renegotiate to earn them wages more in line with their successful peers and forebears in comedy.

We then jump to 1953, where we spend the majority of the film. By this point, the two men are both in their early sixties and not nearly as in demand as they once were. The public kind of assumes they retired years ago. But they're still doing what they know and love. In 1953, that is performing a tour of live stage shows in England. Meanwhile, Laurel is also in communication with a producer who is about to proceed with a new Robin Hood movie starring the duo.

In "Stan & Ollie", Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly portray legendary comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Once international phenomenons, the aging Laurel and Hardy are humbled by their latest venture. They're playing in small venues they can't even fill, staying in modest hotels, and answering to a manager for whom they're clearly not a priority. Laurel can't seem to get ahold of the producer regarding financing the Robin Hood film. And the two men, whose respective wives are back home in the US, occasionally clash, an inevitable product of all the years they've spent together.

You'd likely be able to pick Laurel and Hardy out of a lineup and the two accomplished, appealing leading men look the part. For Coogan, it's as simple as dying his hair and having his ears pushed out. Reilly undergoes a more elaborate and surprisingly seamless make-up transformation to approximate the substantial stature of Hardy. Coogan and Reilly have never worked together before, but they've run in similar circles and they are every bit as likable together as they have been separately.

Despite its Golden Globe classification as a Comedy or Musical (Reilly was nominated for Best Actor in that class), Stan & Ollie is not the kind of comedy you see in the hopes of finding deep belly laughs. There are some chuckles here and there, but the film seems well aware that the slapstick comedy for which the duo became admired is multiple generations out of style. Laurel and Hardy are repeatedly seen doing gags, on stage and in promotional stunts staged to drum up interest in their tour. Bits involving hard-boiled eggs, a pair of doors, and, of course, their signature bowler hats of different sizes are not meant to make you laugh as much as they are to illustrate the special rapport and camaraderie these two have. They're never as alive as when they're acting goofy for an audience.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope, a veteran of British television and Coogan's Philomena co-writer, makes the wise choice to focus on a singular down rather than the series of ups and downs a broader look at the pair's largely shared career would have entailed. This is no movie of the week (not that there is such a thing anymore), but rather a light and tasteful look at friendship that outlived the act's demand. It's no surprise to be unamused by Laurel and Hardy's recreated comedy bits nor to learn that audiences had grown weary of them. Comedy tastes are always changing. Heck, I've recently been rewatching comedy movies from ten years ago and many of them have already grown dated in pronounced ways.

With rumors of their retirement greatly exaggerated, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) tour England's stages in 1953.

Stan & Ollie isn't out to make you a believer in slapstick or even to make you a fan of its subjects or an expert on their lives. Directed by Scotland's Jon S. Baird (Green Street Hooligans), who returns to film after several years in television, this really just wants to share with you the final chapter of the two comedians' professional and personal collaboration. As the movie presents it, the two don't hit the "off" switch often. The playful dynamic of their comedy is also on display in their interactions with hotel lobbies and luggage.
They've got their more serious issues; Hardy has health concerns and Laurel has sworn off drinking (something his wife, played by Nina Arianda, insists on enforcing when she finally visits him on the tour). And that unfinished movie deal weighs down on both, as does a sour, not fully resolved chapter from the 1937 apex (a brief creative separation).

While it never approaches great cinema, Stan & Ollie does land several notches above your run-of-the-mill biopic, including those that have opened at the end of the year in conjunction with the awards season (On the Basis of Sex). The movie continues for about ten minutes after its reached a really satisfying conclusion, but at just 98 minutes with credits, it hardly overstays its welcome or belabors any points. Too slight for any awards beyond the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs (who nominated UK favorite Coogan instead), and maybe Best Makeup and Hairstyling (it's on the Academy's shortlist of seven vying for three nominations), the film nonetheless proves to be a charming little journey well worth taking.

Related Reviews:
Steve Coogan: Philomena The Trip to Spain | John C. Reilly: The Sisters Brothers Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule: Seasons 1 & 2
Nina Arianda: Florence Foster Jenkins Rob the Mob The Humbling Midnight in Paris
Now in Theaters: The Upside Capernaum Vice On the Basis of Sex If Beale Street Could Talk

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Reviewed January 18, 2019.

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