Stan & Ollie: The time two clowns cried

B- Biopic
Written by Jeff Pope
Directed by Jon S. Baird

This is absolutely the least funny Laurel and Hardy movie I have ever seen.

Of course, it’s not a real Laurel and Hardy movie. It’s certainly not a comedy, although it has many laughs. Stan & Ollie is a mostly sad story about the great comic duo in decline. They haven’t made a film in years, and no one wants them. They’re old, and the extremely obese Hardy especially feels the weight of his age. The picture gives us a sense of how the real Laurel and Hardy may have worked, behaved, and related to each other. It’s touching, but you can feel the strings manipulating you as this very sad story unfolds.

Like all narrative films based on actual people, Stan & Ollie is a work of fiction. I know a little about the real team, and as near as I can tell, this film sticks relatively close to reality. I don’t think the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were as close to each other as the film suggests, and the ending is too sentimental to be believable. But the film gives us a sense of how the two might have related to and worked with each other.

Both history and this film agree on one important fact: Stan Laurel was the genius of the team. The man who played cinema’s ultimate idiot worked closely with writers and directors, devising gags, and planning out how best to shoot them.

After a prologue set at their height in the late 1930s, the film jumps to a tour of Great Britain in the early 1950s. They’re desperate, hoping to raise money for a slapstick Robin Hood movie.

Keep in mind that Laurel and Hardy never worked together on the live stage until after their success in the movies was long gone. Theirs’s was a team made in Hollywood. According to the screenplay, the tour starts bad, with almost empty houses – although the people who do attend laugh heartily. The tour slowly becomes a hit, but other problems, including Hardy’s gambling addiction, cause problems.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do a remarkable job playing two people whose faces and mannerisms have long-since burned into every movie lover’s frontal cortex. Much of the credit goes to hair and make-up designer Jeremy Woodhead. When you see the Stan and Ollie off-stage, as you do for most of the movie, you can easily believe that they are the creators of their famous characters. They slip into their public personas easily, and even when they’re just being themselves, you can see little mannerisms that reflect the outsized gestures of their screen characters.

We see them often performing on stage, and here Coogan and Reilly appear to become the Laurel and Hardy that we know and love. These scenes are very funny, but not quite as funny as the originals.

Laurel and Hardy created some of the most perfect comedy in cinema. Stan & Ollie doesn’t really stand up to its subject, but it’s not a complete failure, either.