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Director:           John S. Baird

Stars:              John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Danny Huston, Nina Ariana

Running time: 98 mins

Ratings:           IMDB                     7.6      (IMDB score is weighted average of audience scores out of 10)

             Rotten Tomatoes    92%    (Rotten Tomatoes score is % of professional critic reviews that are positive)

Awards:          One Golden Globe nomination, Three BAFTA nominations

 

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 Reviews:

 

Stan & Ollie is a gently elegiac homage to Laurel and Hardy. It’s never quite as funny as might have been expected, but it tugs at the emotions throughout. With beautiful performances by Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C Reilly (as Oliver Hardy), it is a film about friendship and loyalty as much as a comedy. 

Director Jon S Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope are exploring the strange process through which the two comedians, in their private lives and dealings with one another, became well-nigh identical to the characters they played on screen. 

The film follows Stan and Ollie on their tour of Britain in 1953, very late in their careers. As they travel from Newcastle to Glasgow, they play half-empty halls and stay in seedy boarding houses and hotels. Their slick, double-dealing promoter Bernie Delfont (played by Rufus Jones) is far more interested in boosting new client Norman Wisdom than in helping old-timers like Laurel and Hardy.

A short prelude, set in Hollywood in 1937, reminds the audience that, only a few years earlier, Laurel and Hardy were the biggest comedy stars in the world. In a single shot, Baird shows the duo in their bowler hats and braces walking from dressing rooms to sound stages. Everybody loves them. In the course of an epic walk, Ollie grabs a doughnut and places a bet. Stan is greeted with affection by passersby. When they finally reach the set, they are met by their overbearing producer, Hal Roach (Danny Huston). 

Stan, far more business savvy than his partner, is well aware they are paid considerably less than Charlie Chaplin and other comedy stars – confusingly, the film makes reference to silent-era legends Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, whose careers had foundered by this point. The Englishman is threatening to break with Roach and go it alone, but Ollie is too timid to embrace such a plan.

Some 16 years later, the comedians have come to Britain to try to revive their careers. If their stage shows go well enough, they hope to make another movie.

Reilly and Coogan brilliantly capture the physical mannerisms and verbal tics of their characters without resorting to caricature. The make-up department has done wonders in bulking Reilly up and giving him an enormous double chin. Coogan, meanwhile, has that thin-faced, hapless, head-scratching, little boy lost look that Laurel always showed on screen. They sing “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” and dance with a comic grace and panache matching that of the real comedy legends.

Stan & Ollie is one of a number of recent movies – including Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and My Week with Marilyn – that follow the downbeat experiences of big-name Hollywood stars in Britain at difficult times in their careers. The film becomes progressively gloomier as Laurel and Hardy are forced to perform publicity stunts – judging a bathing beauty contest, helping kids cross the road – to boost ticket sales. Some of the gags are crude. At one stage, in clear reference to their Oscar-winning short The Music Box, we see the comedians trying to drag an enormous trunk up a flight of stairs. Stan is humiliated when the British producer supposedly set to finance their comeback movie won’t even take a meeting with him. One of the comedians is shown looking bewildered beneath a giant poster for a new Abbott and Costello movie. 

Midway through the film, the comedians are joined by their wives. Shirley Henderson plays the shrewish but affectionate Mrs Hardy while Nina Arianda is Ida Kitaeva, Stan’s headstrong partner, a former dancer and movie actress who tells everyone she meets the same stories about her once glorious career. Henderson and Arianda are a double-act in their own right, and have their comic moments, but they fade into the background whenever Coogan and Reilly are on screen. The only relationship that really matters in this film is the one between the two principals. As in all buddy movies, the old pals have their rocky moments. Stan accuses Ollie of being a “lazy ass” who got lucky because he met a partner who would do all the work for him. Ollie dismisses Stan as emotionally “hollow” and not a real friend at all. The more the two bicker, the more apparent it becomes that they can’t do without each other.

Director Baird, whose previous film was scabrous Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, wrings every last drop of pathos he can from his material. This is very much a case of the tears of the clowns. Laurel and Hardy, two of the best-loved figures in film history, are seen here at their lowest ebb. They’re getting old. They’re no longer bankable as movie stars. However, as the film also shows, the magic between them never dissipates. They can’t be split either. Stan & Ollie won’t ever have you in hysterics, but its account of the comedians in their twilight years is insightful and endlessly touching.

GEOFFREY MACNAB

THE INDEPENDENT