Film Review: Stan and Ollie
An old-school biopic elevated by its performances
For a biographical film spanning just one and a half hour, ‘Stan and Ollie’ is remarkable in its scope. It is based on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, arguably the most beloved comic duo in the history of comedy. Although such films often become longer for the sake of covering all the exhaustive details, this film focuses on setting the bittersweet honesty than showing every detail of their lives. The result is a film that does not lose its path from showcasing its characters and their inner-struggles.
Stan and Ollie doesn’t spend much of its time establishing them as iconic figures and state the obvious. In the long take that the film begins with, much of the information is shared about these characters in their most successful years. We get a glimpse of their influence over people and their charm. We get an insight into the dissatisfactions related to self-worth. 16 years later and we see the same pair, although much older, struggling to find gigs while dealing with their own health issues. This glory-to-fall arc is further elaborated with some biting yet remarkable observations. Even when it brings out these darker truths, it never loses its spirit, to stay cheerful no matter what.
Slapstick comedy, as we know, is a form of comedy dealing with exaggerated actions and is pretty much devoid of any human pathos. The pair was popular for the same. Unlike their screen personas, they are shown here, in their most vulnerable states. Many scenes are added in the film to show the way they were often perceived by others, to the way they would normally interact.
That pretence was a part of their act and their on-stage personalities. But it is hard for people like us to accept them to be emotional beings just like any other. Particularly in a scene where their argument heats up into throwing a thing or two at each other, other people take it as a part of their comic routine. In reality, they are seen to be dealing with traumas from their past.
We are presented with darker sides behind their comic realm. The film explores their relation as a comedy-pair as well as friends. Their interactions seem cathartic for their characters. Even when the film taps on the familiar melodramatic notes that are carefully structured to instigate a reaction, it hardly feels inorganic. Thanks to both the actors (John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan) who elevate the material and take it to another level.
Reilly and Coogan are terrific in their roles, which makes every scripted dialogue seem well-grounded and organic. They are effortless and natural in their delivery. Being character-actors may have helped them making it more believable. Their chemistry is as fluid as the original duo. They feel almost like a couple fighting over some mishap or prejudices from the past. The conflicts that arise between reel and real life never seem to be forced. Neither of the actors feels like a caricature.
Coogan’s eyes convey much more than the script needed, bringing ingenuity to Stan’s character, riddled with anxieties of self-worth. A largely under-appreciated Reilly is especially impressive with the additional weight that was put on. With very little to work with any type of body-movements, he feels precise and incredibly convincing with his mannerisms without being over-the-top. Relationships with their respective wives add another layer into perceiving them as human beings.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, the film doesn’t just stop at their respective careers, but comments on the changing landscape of comedy world as well. On their UK tour, the audience reaction is not as delightful as before. Laurel and Hardy are not considered as the icons they once were. Even the enthusiasm for their work is seen to have fallen.
The older generation looks amazed merely by their presence. But there’s much lesser talk about their acts and hardly any interest in younger folks. Even though the pair was one of the few people to have had successfully transitioned from silent era to the talking cinema, their struggle came much later. This struggle to deal with the advancements is particularly timeless. The film, dealing with the same, is not particularly timeless yet becomes a highly affectionate and engaging watch.