Stan & Ollie review — Another fine mess

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in Stan & Ollie

About halfway through my screening of Stan and Ollie, someone sitting behind me said — in reference to the antics of the leads’ respective wives — ‘These bloody women.’ A strange reaction to have, I thought, given that they’re the best part of the film. I mean, the tale of Laurel and Hardy’s farewell tour of the UK is mostly pleasant enough, but lacks definition without a meaningful external lens through which to view them. Up until that point you’re just watching two talented actors do a perfectly serviceable impression of two others.

Steve Coogan’s Laurel is appropriately tight lipped and nervy, fastidious, like to fall into patter when out of control of his environment. John C. Reilly finds redemption here from his recent turn as Dr. Watson. These aren’t the sort of magical Oldman prosthetics that win you the Oscar, they’re too soft for that, the character is too. Light, gregarious and irrepressible, streams from his eyes; brightening the world when times seem grim. At the outset of the film they’ve reunited after years of semi-retirement, hoping to drum up enough interest to gain funding for a Robin Hood picture they’re scripting.

Rufus Jones, playing their tour’s producer, inducts them into the indignity of the world of the British stage. His mismanagement causes them to take matters into their own hands, drumming up publicity to try pack out the dingy theatres they’ve got booked. It’s pleasant enough stuff, you get to admire their hustle, the work that goes into creating their material. There’s also some notable scenes set on some very lovely trains. This is also where we get the majority of them recreating old bits.

I’ve honestly not seen enough of the original material to judge how well they’re playing it. The mood is well conveyed though: these are two men beyond their prime, more tired than they once were. The intent of their work is conveyed, but one senses that it lacks the precision that it would have had before. There’s a routine they do which involves Laurel peeling an egg, and one can sense the actor’s struggle with a tricky prop when the focus should be on the scene. Director Jon S. Baird in these early moments fills the frame with images of people waiting to laugh, it’s excruciating.

Of course, eventually they start. I’ve performed both scripted comedy and stand-up before, and the relief at the laughter starting is always palpable. What strikes me here though is how they come. Like, I don’t actually find their bits hugely funny on the whole. They have their moments, and there’s like one routine that elicited a few chuckles, but nothing that would set the world alight. However, the audiences in this joint howl at them, when they get going they’re wild for it.

One must be careful when painting such a picture to avoid it becoming a hagiography. Depicting an ending is difficult considering our inclination is to want to see success in our stories. A scene of Coogan gazing mournfully at the poster of a new Abbott and Costello is offered to give a chance to reflect, but we are not invited to implicate our heroes part in their own decline.

Then the women arrive and the film gets much more interesting. We finally get to see how their fame has impacted lives other than their own. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda arrive radiating a much more palpable odd couple energy than anything we get off our leads. If the filmmakers were too precious of their subjects’ reputation then the wives are the avenue through which they choose to explore the crunchier side of life, the fractures in the enterprise. Bloody women indeed.

The pairing of Henderson and Reilly is a masterstroke. Two folks who can scarcely be more different in demeanour, but whose ability to project well-natured compassion clicks immediately. Arianda’s creation of this imperious former dancer, now-ageing wannabe Hollywood starlet is pitch perfect. It ends up affording her most of the film’s genuine laughs as now even the nervy Laurel is afforded an excuse to play the straight man in his scenes. It’s a shame that they won’t get the credit for the way that they elevate the men’s performances.

The wrinkles that they introduce to the operation finally expose the fact that these two might not be being completely honest with each other about their feelings toward the partnership. Imagine that, men being uncommunicative. The conflict that arises plays in a peculiar minor key, unfocused. It feels like, aware of the particularly low stakes at play, the screenwriters play all of their cards at once. So we muddle through a handful of barely connected crises waiting for the gestalt to say something meaningful.

It kinda gets there in the end, though it’s not Coogan’s tearful monologue about the power of friendship that seals it. Rather, a quiet gentle conversation between two friends who realise the depths of care that they have for each other. That’s when the film feels complete. So, after, the bluster of a final performance sequence feels superfluous.

I’m like to be kinder to a film of this sort after the year’s Bohemian catastrophe. Sorta regard it suspiciously and admire how it approaches these real peoples’ lives respectfully. However, its overabundance of reverence leaves it toothless. It has little to say, and struggles to convey it cohesively. Maybe the first half of the film is more honest, the performances are just about all its got.

Stan & Ollie is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Three Stars
Image courtesy of Entertainment One

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