Midway through Stan & Ollie, the titular comedy duo lament that nobody is going to the movies anymore, that people would much rather stay home in front of their television sets than go to the cinema. The film takes place in 1955, yet this concern rings even more true in 2019, as filmmakers are forced to compete not only with TV, but also with a world of online content. In fact, there is arguably no better case study for a commentary on the changing direction of the film industry than Laurel and Hardy; their style of comedy seems so antiquated by modern standards, but their concerns as artists are timeless.
Philomena scribe Jeff Pope and Filthdirector Jon S. Baird make the bold decision to set Stan & Ollie during Laurel and Hardy’s twilight years, rather than a beat-for-beat recap of the duo’s Hollywood heyday. The result is a film that feels more focused and down-to-earth, showing its famous subjects in a more vulnerable state: Oliver Hardy (John C. Reily) struggles with his health as Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) tries in vain to get the duo’s new film financed. While there are flashbacks and references to Laurel and Hardy’s more well-known era, they are mostly used as a punchline, with many characters assuming the pair had gone into retirement. Stan & Ollieis not a typical glitzy entertainment industry biopic; it’s a film about how artists keep up with changing tastes while remaining true to themselves.
Admittedly, the pacing feels slightly rushed in the beginning as the film attempts to convey to a 21stcentury audience just how successful Laurel and Hardy were in the 1930s. Laurel, a prolific writer, wants to renegotiate the duo’s contract to grant them more control, while Hardy is content acting in the studio financed films. This push and pull leads to the pair splitting up, and the film jumps 16 years into the future when they reunite. Perhaps there would have been more mystery if the scenes set in the 1930s were addressed in flashbacks, granting the audience only peeks into Laurel and Hardy at their most famous and allowed a more immediate contrast between eras.
The film really gets going once the story reaches the 1950s, where the majority of the film is set. Coogan and Reily perfectly embody their respective characters without the performances feeling impressionistic or cartoonish, especially in a film with a surprising amount of silly yet perfectly executed comedy. Jon S. Baird does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick routines in a more modern style, giving the impression that these men lived and breathed entertainment rather than seeing it as a means to an end. This film feels like an ode to the magic of comedy, be it on-screen or stage, not just a tragic drama as it so easily could have become.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair share of pathos: one heart breaking scene sees Coogan fighting back tears as his character explains what would be a funny gag to an ailing, bedridden Reilly, following his character’s first heart attack. The scene cleverly mirrors Laurel and Hardy’s famous hospital gag, with Steve Coogan providing the performance of his career as a man coming to terms with his best friend’s mortality, whilst John C. Reilly is equally excellent as the entertainer torn between his love for work and his failing health. There aren’t many films out this award season as charming and funny as Stan & Ollie. Elevated by winning performances from the entire cast and a definitive message to any artist trying to get their voice heard in an ever-changing industry, this is definitely more than a throwaway prestige biopic.
Stan & Ollie is out today in major theatres across the UK.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc.
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