Directed by Jon S. Baird, Stan & Ollie follows the later career of iconic comedians Hardy and Laurel (John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, respectively). Although the film is based on a comedic duo, it would be unwise to walk into the theater expecting this film to be a lighthearted venture. The film opens with a shot of Hardy and Laurel’s bowl hats on a movie set of which they are the stars. The pair move with a fluidity which characterizes their success and confidence at the height of their career in 1937. Both Laurel and Hardy are warm and charismatic as they go from set to set and chide one another on failed marriages and contract negotiations. This sequence, unfortunately, only lasts a moment. The film quickly cuts to 16 years later, where there are clear changes to the tandem’s dynamic.
The two are no longer the most exciting film stars of the moment—in fact, they are no longer film stars at all. It is revealed the pair is in Europe in order to go on a tour to earn money while they work out a deal for a new film based on Robin Hood. They arrive at a broken down hotel where the receptionist says it is so great they are still touring after all this time and is excited to see them as her parents love their work. Stan and Ollie, clearly disappointed at the quality of their residence and the state of their tour after finding out they will only be performing in small, unknown theaters, call their wives.
Stan—who is married to Ida (Nina Arianda)—and Oliver—who is married to Lucille (Shirley Henderson)—seem to have married reflections of themselves. Ida is blunt and ambitious while Lucille is soft and caring. When asking about the journey, Ida inquires if Oliver has been pulling his weight while Lucille wonders if Stan is pushing her husband too far as his health is clearly deteriorating. Ida and Lucille reflect the differences in Stan and Ollie, getting to the root of why the pair have had issues over the past 16 years of their career.
The tour begins and, much to the dismay of Stan and Ollie, they can barely get more than a dozen people to show up. Their show, however delightful to the meager audience, simply does not attract the same audience because the performers lack relevance. Bernard Delefont (Rufus Jones), the tour manager, slyly suggests publicity stunts in order to get the news out about their shows, or else they’d have to cancel the tour. The men—both clearly aging—agree to the strategy as a way to continue the tour, especially because a financier from the film they are hoping to make will be at the last stop in London. After making appearances, the ticket sales immediately improve and they start booking better venues. Laurel, however, as the driving force behind their careers, begins to worry when the financier will not answer his calls.
After a successful second leg of the tour, the pair finally makes it to London where they are joined by their wives. Here, Laurel finally finds out from one of his financier’s assistants that the Robin Hood film isn’t happening. Additionally, Hardy’s health is clearly deteriorating, and it becomes harder and harder for him to make it through the show. Despite all this, Laurel and Hardy are able to make it to their last show and close out with a dance.
Although this movie is by no means strictly comedic, the classic bits copied straight from Laurel and Hardy’s routines, as well as the dry British wit and relationship between Ida and Lucille, bring genuine levity to the story. The film is emotionally driven by duos, crafted to give the audience another perspective on popular figures in media. Overall, it is a wonderfully acted and delightfully entertaining film, and an opportunity to learn more about two people who had a heavy hand in shaping the trajectory of comedy and stage performance.
Featured Image by BBC Films