Stan and Ollie: A Silver Screen Bromance

Stan & Ollie
(UK, 97 min.)
Dir. Jon S. Baird, Writ. Jeff Pope
Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy with a camera
John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, an Entertainment One release.
Photo: Aimee Spinks.

The comedic spirits of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are alive and well in the duo of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. The actors are a delightful screen team in this fun bromance. With straight-laced Coogan playing Laurel and the jolly Reilly playing Hardy, the actors give some of their best performances while paying tribute to the famous tag team of stage and screen. One doesn’t need to be a fan of classic cinema to have a good laugh with Stan & Ollie as the film revisits the final chapter of their career together with some of their best gags revisited, and in some cases reinterpreted, to bring their laughs to life.

Stan & Ollie provides an amiable, easygoing buddy comedy as Laurel and Hardy find themselves in a sorry state after years of enjoying the spotlight. Writer Jeff Pope, who worked with Coogan on Philomena, focuses on the icons more as common men than as stars and finds some great relationships not only between Stan and Ollie, but also between their wives, Lucille (a spirited Shirley Henderson) and Ida (a scene-stealing Nina Arianda). As one character in the movie says, they give audiences two comedic duos for the price of one. In their personal and professional lives, the men struggle to find a sense of purpose when their means of being the breadwinner has simply not kept pace with the audience that feeds them.

The year is 1953 and the duo isn’t the A-list marquee draw it used to be. When Stan and Ollie roll up to a fleabag hotel and bring their bags to the lobby sans porter, the film gives a fair snapshot of how close these guys are to slumming it. Laughter is the best medicine and setting their sights on the stage rejuvenates the pair as they put their past behind them—creative differences drove them apart years ago—and hope to become bankable again with a plum movie deal in their eyes if the tour proves a hit. The first shows, however, are about as empty as a Canadian movie on opening night. Their jokes just can’t land with the right beat when they play to dead cavernous silence. An empty theatre is a most discouraging sight.

Reilly and Coogan, however, completely nail the energy that made Laurel and Hardy so great. Even if the audience onscreen is dead silent, the screening rooms playing Stan & Ollie should be rolling with chuckles and good spirits. Reilly and Coogan have the comedic timing of the duo down pat with memorable sketches like the “waiting for a train” bit in which each actor wanders around the station, going in while the other goes out, drawing upon physical comedy and sight gags for a lighthearted laugh. The joke repeats throughout Stan & Ollie and becomes an effective device to convey both Hardy’s declining health and the overall stagnation of the duo’s creative spirit. They’re running in circles and they know it.

The best joke of the film, and one that viewers in the know will really love, is an homage to the Oscar winning short The Music Box that arrives in a railway station as Stan and Ollie struggle to carry their heavy chest of luggage up the stairs. The bit perfectly mirrors the sequence of The Music Box in which Laurel and Hardy fail miserably at moving a piano up a flight of steps only to see it go sliding down when they wheezingly reach the top. Reilly in particularly plays the scene extremely well as he gasps and sweats under Oscar-worthy gobs of make-up and creates an ailing, desperate man using his last breaths to reclaim the greatness he once knew.

When a piano falling down the stairs is a comedic highlight of a film in 2019, however, one knows that the humour might be lost on an audience accustomed to edgier fare. As a sweet, relaxed, and easygoing comedy, however, Stan & Ollie honours the humour of its subjects by recreating the same sense of humour that made them stars. It’s a fun throwback to a golden age of comedy.

Stan & Ollie opens in Toronto at the Varsity on Jan. 18.