Stan & Ollie is a movie that reminds you why Hollywood pays its best and brightest the big bucks. The film flounders as often as it flourishes, but its two leads’ standout performances keep it afloat. Director Jon S. Baird focuses on Laurel and Hardy’s melancholic exit from the limelight but also finds delight in their steadfast creative spirits
Stan & Ollie follows Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) on the downward slope of their careers. The decision to explore the slapstick duo’s final years is the smartest choice in Jeff Pope’s script. Cradle-to-the-grave biopics are miles wide but inches deep. Sure, they touch on the most significant moments in their protagonists’ lives, but the trade-offs are shallow characters and underdeveloped relationships. Stan & Ollie’s focused script gives Baird the breathing room to make his leads feel like well-rounded people.
It’s the early 1950s, and with their glory days behind them, the duo embark on a variety hall tour of Britain. Night after night, they perform in second-rate venues before half-empty rooms. The constant reminder of their waning relevance isn’t what either man signed up for, but their dogged professionalism keeps them going. Laurel and Hardy became legends for a reason, and they bust their asses on stage for rooms of 400 or 40. Their hard work pays off, people start noticing them, and they’re once again playing to packed rooms. But it’s not all smooth sailing. Hardy’s body can’t take the nightly grind, and old tensions simmer up, causing Laurel to reconsider the nature of their friendship.
Coogan and Reilly deliver exceptional performances, and they’re the film’s highpoints. Coogan is a comedic genius. He has an inexhaustible penchant for comedic lunacy, and he’s a master mimic – one of the few people on the planet who could go toe-to-toe with Jim Carrey. Watching Coogan dial it down and turn in an understated performance is captivating. It may be Reilly buried beneath layers of prosthetics, but it’s Coogan who disappears into his role.
Reilly is an actor who the average movie viewer would recognize but probably couldn’t name. He’s also someone who is routinely the best thing about whatever film he shows up in – even when amongst a stacked cast. Reilly brings an emotional depth and texture to Oliver Hardy that transcends the novelty of his transformative fat suit. (The real Hardy weighed in at 280 lbs). I knew nothing about Oliver Hardy, but thanks to Reilly’s captivating performance, I immediately understood and felt for him. Reilly makes Hardy’s showbiz exit sting like needle pricks.
The film is at its best when it recreates Laurel and Hardy’s physical comedy routines. After all, Reilly and Coogan are mimicking a timeless act and executing it with perfection. How do we know? Because Baird gives his audience a special treat during the final moments, and he throws actual Laurel and Hardy performances up on the screen as the credits roll. It makes for an upbeat ending that almost masks the preceding 97-minutes lack of vitality.
Every beat in Stan & Ollie leads viewers towards its maudlin final moments. There’s nothing wrong with a predictable and melodramatic ending. The problem here is how unapologetic this picture is about making viewers weep. As we reach the end, you see the film make overt tugs at your heartstrings. Despite this being a true story, pivotal segments in the third act feel forced, which took me out of the film during a critical scene. A movie’s final moments should be rousing, insightful, or cathartic. Stan & Ollie’s lack of nuance makes the ending feel manipulative. I don’t mind a sappy ending, but the conclusion shouldn’t make me feel like a sap.
Stan & Ollie is a by-the-numbers movie that drags along until the final moments. Everything clicks now and then thanks to two remarkable performances from the picture’s leads. But there aren’t enough of those shining moments to distinguish Stan & Ollie from similar middle-of-the-road biopics. Even if you’ve never heard of Laurel and Hardy, this story feels all too familiar.