Premise: Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.
Stan & Ollie dramatizes the waning days of Laurel & Hardy’s professional relationship with a quiet, almost sedated dignity. Embarking on a lengthy theatre tour in Britain, the aging comedy legends work to reclaim their comedic spotlight and secure funding for a Robin Hood film. This comes at the expense of their physical and mental health while also forcing them to come to terms with their celebrity status.
Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Hardy) sell the professional bond the pair have fairly well. Unfortunately, the movie dives right into the twilight of their partnership set 16 years after the opening scene in their heyday. The opening scene is impressive by itself. It’s a lengthy single take following the pair as they walk through a studio lot discussing their contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and coming into contact with a bevy of people.
It’s impressive and a fun way to reel in the audience early. But the movie doesn’t carry that momentum anywhere significant. Instead we are given an immediate time jump and reintroduced to the characters at a vastly different stage in their lives. It’s a misstep that is made even more problematic by the fact that Huston steals that opening scene as Hal Roach. I would have preferred to see a movie about Laurel & Hardy’s relationship with Roach, but I digress.
When it comes to what the movie actually is, I found it to be a perfectly fine drama. It’s a little dry and the performances across the board are pretty subdued. But Coogan and Reilly carry the film well. In particular, I found John C. Reilly to be particularly charming as Hardy. It’s a shame, however, that the movie doesn’t give the leads much room to stretch their dramatic range.
The leads being slightly pigeonholed may be due to the overall tone set by the movie. As I said, it’s a fairly sedated drama in that even when they duo come into conflict with each other, it doesn’t feel like a significant moment. The argument and its fallout are fairly tame compared to really any movie in the biopic/drama film genre. I can appreciate the film not going haywire with artistic license to manufacture conflict, but the movie doesn’t seem to attempt to even meet the story halfway in that regard.
For Stan & Ollie‘s dramatic missteps, however, the film really had me in its final act. When the duo perform for the last time in the movie, I felt a renewed energy and fresh interest in the film. I really enjoyed the final moments of the film. Unfortunately, it was a rocky road to get there.
Stan & Ollie is a serviceable and delicate depiction of one of comedy’s greatest duos. Although the movie could have been more dramatic (and while we’re at it, funnier as well), there’s an undercurrent of respect for the subjects that I appreciated. Though it struggled to find its way, Stan & Ollie sticks its landing as well as it could. Ultimately, however, I was left wanting and felt like there was a much more interesting story to be told over what we got.