In Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie, we peek behind the curtain and into the private lives of two cinematic heroes seeing out their twilight years in a flurry of theatrical performances and bittersweet reminiscences.
The dynamic of a great comedy duo is often celebrated as a piece of magic, a natural chemistry that makes for special entertainment. In Baird’s film about the latter years of Laurel and Hardy, there is a sense that the two screen veterans can still conjure that magic at will, but are fighting against the odds. Their strength is waning as they grow older and audiences are just as good at moving onto the next new thing as they are at celebrating the classics.
Stan & Ollie was adapted by screenwriter Jeff Pope from A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours. It tells the story of how, in the 1950s, the two great comedians embarked on a lengthy run of shows in theatres and music halls across the British Isles. Partly spurred on by money troubles, but largely driven by a desire to get producers on board for their last big film project, the duo squabble and enjoy one another’s company in equal measure.
The pair miss the old grandeur of their Hollywood glory days, but still revel in the very act of performance itself – no matter their age, no matter the strain it puts on their relationship. This is a tale of faded glory, perhaps overly sentimental at times, but it’s also an insightful examination of what makes a double-act tick. In fact, were John C. Reilly (superb as Oliver “Babe” Hardy) and Steve Coogan (playing Stan Laurel) not up to the task of portraying the iconic twosome, the whole film would fall distinctly flat, but it’s a credit to the pair’s overall acting chops that they manage to conjure real pathos in moments requiring the awkward tenderness of such long-standing friends.
For all the fanfare that might surround the casting of two well-loved comic actors in a film about two legendary comedians, Stan & Ollie is, at heart, a story about growing old and letting go of life. There’s a melancholic sweetness to it which will stay with you more resonantly than its gentle humour. Truthfully, it’s a romance as well as a comedy, one bearing a passing resemblance to The Remains of The Day: Laurel, like Stevens, is preoccupied by the idea of lost chances, out on a road trip to make partial amends with ghosts of the past.
The real marvel of this biopic is how well it captures the stoic resolve of two men who come to realise, perhaps long after their own audience, that life has joined them together for better and for worse. “You can’t have Laurel without Hardy,” – Stan tells the studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston), early on in the film. This is its central premise, the main mantra in a film which focuses in on stagecraft and performance as a means to also explore the deeper implications of loyalty and companionship.