As biographical films go this movie achieves a clever launch of the story of Laurel and Hardy. It begins with the pair informing the audience all about their lives in 1937 as they conduct a conversation while making their way to the set of their latest film, ‘Way Out West’. It is a very clever means of delineating the characters of Stand and Ollie, their various relationships, and, without doubt, the most important theme of the story, their friendship. After filming their famous dance scene for ‘Way Out West’ the film jumps forward in time and finds the pair older, poorer, and about to book into an unattractive hotel in Newcastle, England, prior to beginning their final tour of Britain and Ireland. Their opening night is little better, the is not the premier venue in the city and is barely half-full.
With both Stand and Ollie looking as old and tired as their environment this film could very easily have descended into bathos, instead director Jon S. Baird chooses to follow the Laurel and Hardy method of comedy by concentrating on the small interactions and ignoring the bigger picture. Their entrance into the Newcastle hotel is quite simply a Laurel and Hardy comedy sketch complete with Ollie’s wearied look into the camera. It is, however, barbed with a note of reality, as many of their meetings with British fans prove to be throughout the tour, that act as reminders that time has marched on and fate has not been kind to their memory as they might have wished. Stan and Ollie are not given to self-pity, however. They are seasoned professionals who have worked hard all of their lives and they love entertaining people, even half-full houses. They also share a friendship that has lasted over 30 years and this is the bedrock of both their professional and personal relationships. It is not perfect, despite appearances, but it is remarkably strong. Even though the pair are heading towards the end of their professional lives, and they clearly understand this even if they do not wish to admit to it, it is their friendship that sees them through the trials of getting old and finding a way into the hearts of their audience other than by making yet another film. The end of their long career is coming but it is not all sadness because what Stan and Ollie have is a deep affection and respect for each other that turns ‘Stand & Ollie’ into a beautiful film in its own right.
The actors, Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Ollie, are so good that as the story develops they seem to be Stan and Ollie. It is quite remarkable. I do not think that I have seen another biopic in which I forgot that I was watching an actor play another living person, especially two that I have enjoyed watching for so long myself. The mannerisms, the speech, the looks, the subtle interactions, are all close to being perfect. This is acting of the highest degree. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do not ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, they seduce them into doing so by being entirely believable. This is not some great drama or highbrow review of intellectual concepts, it is an examination of the human condition as seen through the trials, tribulations, highs and lows of two friends.
‘Stan & Ollie’ illustrates what it was that made these two entertainers so special. Although they receded from public life, like so many other entertainers who grow old and find that the powers that be in Hollywood no longer have a use for them, Laurel & Hardy have survived. Their brand of humour remains influential, entertaining, and relevant. It is about two friends trying to make their way in an uncaring world and what could be more inspirational than that? Throughout their cinematic legacy Stan and Ollie get repeatedly knocked down but always got up again. With childish optimism they continued trying to succeed. That philosophy appears to have been a part of their actual lives as well. It is definitely a part of this movie and provides the uplift at the conclusion. You cannot help but smile as the credits roll and Stan and Ollie perform their ‘Way Out West’ dance one more time.