Released: 21st February
Seen: 21st February
When you look back through the history of cinema there are only a few performers who can truly be considered icons. One of the biggest icons in the history of cinema is Laurel & Hardy, a comedy duo who made over 100 films together over the course of about two decades where they basically were the biggest names in comedy. Their partnership started almost by accident, the two of them were part of the old Hollywood system that signed people up to contracts that kept them working for years and turned them into one of the most iconic duos in history. It was almost inevitable that some portion of their lives was going to be turned into a biopic, as it seems Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself. Of all the stories that could’ve been told, the one they picked was absolutely perfect.
Stan & Ollie focuses on the tail end of Laurel & Hardy’s career, years after the two of them have broken up. They end up being offered the chance to go on one final tour that will double as a way for them to hopefully get money for a Robin Hood film that they want to do. Sadly, things just aren’t working right for them. Stan (Steve Coogan) is still holding onto a bit of serious grudge from the old days while Ollie (John C. Reilly) is battling serious health issues that make it harder for him to do the routines that made them famous. Making everything much more difficult is the simple reality that no one wants to see Laurel & Hardy anymore, meaning they’re performing to almost empty houses and have to work themselves to the bone to try and get through the tour.
From the first shot of the film, this is a love letter to these two icons. By starting from essentially the end of their career we are reminded, constantly, that the two of them are past their prime. Everyone thinks they’re retired and unable to do what made them famous and it allows us to root for them to show everyone that they still have that spark of magic. With brilliant performances by the leads, in particular John C Reilly who is unrecognisable and just becomes Oliver Hardy, we are slowly led through a glorious return to fame where we watch as society catches on to just what made Laurel and Hardy special in the first place. What makes this special is that we’re watching them try to reclaim some small sense of the fame they used to have, something we’re reminded of throughout the film whenever someone approaches Laurel & Hardy to ask “I thought you’d retired?”. These two used to be the kings of Hollywood and now we will spend an hour and a half trying to watch them get back on top, something that might never happen.
It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of celebrity, this idea that once they stopped being in a film every year these guys basically stopped existing to a large amount of the public. We see their friendship slowly reform after betrayal pulled them apart and most importantly, we see them making each other laugh. We see their friendship that’s always there, even when they’re fighting. There’s a sweetness to every scene that they share, especially near the end where it’s absolutely magic watching these men create comedy together. They manage to delight each other and, therefore, delight the audience with their infectious joy. This is all mixed in with moments of slapstick, the very thing that Laurel & Hardy were known for, that enhances the story and provides some genuinely great laughs while also showing off the brilliant comedic timing of the lead actors.
On top of just being a heart-warming story, the film is a joy to look at. One of my favourite things for a film to do is a long take and when it’s done right, it’s something special. This film opens with a grand long take that starts with the two characters talking in their dressing room, facing away from the camera but we can see their reflections in the mirror, and we follow them on the long walk through the studio lot to their set to shoot their film. From that moment it’s clear that this film is going to make sure it looks as good as it can and does so in a way that serves the story. Every shot is just perfect and lets us really get invested in this story and in the health of our two leads.
Stan & Ollie is a wonderful film, loaded to the brim with warmth and love for the icons it’s presenting to the audience. With career-best performances by the leads, a beautiful visual style and some whip-sharp writing, it’s a great biopic that tells the story of an important time in the lives of two icons. There was something truly special about Laurel & Hardy, and there is truly something special about Stan & Ollie.