MOVIE REVIEW: Stan & Ollie
STAN & OLLIE— 4 STARS
If you’ve never seen a film from the masterful pair of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy film, do yourself a figure and fix that immediately. If you haven’t, you are missing essential roots to cinema’s use of physical comedy. Start simple like 1927’s Putting Pants on Philip, their first official team-up available on YouTube, and hunt down any more of their 107 films together. Inside Hardy’s pushy bullying and Laurel’s clumsiness, witness the intricacy of their craft to combine stage presence with impeccable performance timing. I personally showed this 19-minute breath of fresh air to about sixty Fortnite-playing, high-definition-immersed Millennial middle schoolers and they were enthralled.
LESSON #1: THE PATIENCE, CRAFT, TRUST, AND TIMING OF PHYSICAL COMEDY — All of what you see in classic Laurel and Hardy films like Putting Pants on Philip and in this new biographical tribute, Stan & Ollie, may seem low-tech and antiquated if you have never seen their antics. However, each gag, camera trick, and choreographed little ditty between the original sources and this biopic homage from Filth director Jon S. Baird has an undeniable art to it, a lost one at that. Stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly recapture and remake that brand of magic with equal shimmer and shine calling upon more than enough art of their own.
Stan & Ollie introduces the world-renowned duo at the top of their game in 1937 employed by studio mogul Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Using a mammoth opening single take following shot from cinematographer Laurie Rose (Overlord), the two matinee idols stroll through a busily populated studio backlot passing by other productions and workers feverishly preparing their settings. They are small-talking their way around a minor potential crossroads as they prepare to shoot scenes for what will become Way Out West. Oliver Hardy is the forgetful gambler and glutton enjoying the easy success while Stan Laurel is the enterprising creative force who wants the control to make his own pictures. Stan’s contract is ending soon and he is convinced Roach is going to lowball him with Hardy already secured. Action is called and the discussion is tabled.
Sixteen years sprint proceedings forward to 1953. With graying hair and stiff joints, the former icons are hauling their own suitcases to push away retirement on a schedule of stage shows across mainland Great Britain. They are, at first, welcomed by dwindling crowds, forgotten acclaim, and lesser venues than their heyday. Pushing their aging physical limits, the partners spring to do their own PR and eventually earn that rediscovered audience attention peaking with a bow in London.
LESSON #2: DON’T LIE TO YOUR PARTNER — On the side, Laurel is writing a Robin Hood comeback film for two of them in hopes the regained popularity and the tour’s earnings can make that push happen. It is doomed to fail and Stan cannot muster the courage to tell Oliver. After nearly thirty years of working together, little lies can grow like frost cracking concrete bit by bit over consecutive winters. The trust on stage needed to follow away of the lights and out of the dressing rooms.
Oscar-nominated Philomena screenwriter Jeff Pope bucked the trope-filled “birth-to-death” and “greatest hits” routes of biographical films to target this specific time period of resurgence and closing struggles for Laurel and Hardy. Pope considers these legends to be his personal heros and chose to present them and their most vulnerable, which makes for a fascinating and affecting narrative of restorative and reinforced bonds. This very turbulent period for them displays simmering possibilities of unspoken animosity, a “they-still-got-it” unaging charm of their craft, and the uniquely supportive and very different relationships the two men carry with their handful wives, played respectively by Harry Potter series supporting player Shirley Henderson going mousy and Nina Arianda of Florence Foster Jenkins going bossy.
Stan & Ollie is bolstered by bright and beautiful production detail from head to toe and curtain to curtain. The period-era location selections, set designs, and costume work, ranging from the run-down to the decadent, are pure and perfect. The teams led by two-time Oscar-winning prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier (The Iron Lady, Grand Budapest Hotel) and hair designer Jeremy Woodhead (Cloud Atlas) spared no detail or fleck to transform the central actors. Complimenting for a second time, director of photography Laurie Rose captures an inescapable incandescent glow from all the frivolity and showmanship. The unified artistry present to recreate the old-time filmmaking and stagework routines is extraordinary, adding a tangible and spot-on feel for the movie.
The largest linchpins to celebrate for this film’s sense of authenticity are John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan’s understanding and skilled portrayals. There are two levels of required performance here: Becoming who these two were as performers and then who they were as men. Playing at the drop of a hat for any noticing crowd or nearby lens, Laurel and Hardy turned on the bits and tricks to sell and entertain as their personas. When the cameras were off, they retreated to their true selves. One way or another, these two actors had to be always on.
Coogan and Reilly absolutely nail both of those layers with immensely likable demeanors. Thanks to training from historical consultant Ross Owen and Director of Movement and Choreography Toby Sedgwick, Steven and John offer meticulous and mirror-like stage perfection. Their movements, cadences, and pliable statures stir light shenanigans and incalculable charm, just the like the genial historical figures. The winsome and touching delights spreading from the remembrances and respect found here in Stan & Ollie make for amiable and meaningful engagement.
LESSON #3: THE ABILITY TO MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH IS SPECIAL — Folks, affability is all about the smiles. If you can make people laugh, then you have a powerful gift for connection. Even the smallest gestures of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy showed theirs. Appropriately and memorably, the epitaphs on their graves describe them perfectly declaring “his genius in the art of humor brought gladness to the world he loved” and “his talent brought joy and laughter to all the world.” If these two men, 90 years later, can captivate five dozen junior high kids on the first taste, imagine discovering and savoring their entire careers.