THREE AND A HALF STARS Comedians Laurel & Hardy embark on a swan-song tour of post-war Britain.
Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly
PERIOD COMEDY DRAMA #STANANDOLLIE
Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the most respected, hardest working and beloved comedians of their generation. With countless films, stage appearances and world tours to their name, theirs was the double-act that set the standard for all who followed in their considerable wake. Given that that time was some eighty years ago, it’s testament to their legacy that this film was even made. Think about it, at best they were entertaining your grandfather if not your great, or great-great grandparents. Yet that appeal continues to ripple through time.
As directed by Jon S. Baird (FILTH and HBO’s Vinyl), STAN & OLLIE finds the funny men toward the end of their career, on a tour of British music halls in the early 1950’s. Like the tired establishments they are working in, the appeal and stature their surnames once commanded has well and truly faded, leaving the pair contemplating separation or retirement (Hardy’s health isn’t what it once was). Yet, for now, the show must go on and on they go with mixed blessings form their respective partners.
STAN & OLLIE is an utterly pleasant biopic that eschews the clichés of big drama to focus on the nuance of the couple’s relationship, one that’s fuelled by enormous respect and love. With a big heart Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope (PHILOMENA) explore what it was that kept the showbiz legends together through thick and thin - and by this point it was mostly thin of the cracked-ice variety. The world had been to war and Laurel & Hardy were very much yesterday’s men.
Yet that dedication to nuance also works against the film. Without big dramatic beats it becomes a reverential story about two immensely likeable men being, well, likeable. The narrative grit focuses on their negotiation of trust and navigation toward old age, but the pair are way too likeable to worry about them for long. We know any problem will soon be resolved with a hearty handshake. No doubt they were gentlemen and their nobility is certainly to be applauded, but respect and sincerity is hardly the stuff of riveting drama. All up, this is an oddly bloodless experience.
What recommends STAN & OLLIE are the rock-solid performances of Steve Coogan and a prosthetically enhanced John C. Reilly who completely inhabit their characters. Down to the smallest twitch and tic they effortlessly pull audiences back into a time long gone yet in a way that feels surprisingly tangible. As they throw a spotlight on the impact that one’s use-by date had on these legendary performers, there’s something pleasingly non-period about this period piece.