Awards season tends to be inundated with biopics, and the latest such one, Stan & Ollie, sees the story of legendary comedy duo Laurel & Hardy being told, the first recreation of their hugely successful career.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the titular characters, as they tour Britain for a series of stage-shows during the twilight of their career. A brief (and somewhat lacklustre) prelude set in 1937 era Hollywood demonstrates the fall from grace that befell of the pair, going from packed-out cinemas to half-empty theatres throughout 1953. Through some promotion and publicity, attendances at the shows begin to increase, leading to a renewed interest in the once-loved double-act.
The shows are a mix of old routines and new material, and the film itself is punctuated with these theatrical moments; one such moment involving Laurel and a receptionist is particularly charming, with the film successfully highlighting the synonymy between the stars and their career. After a slow start, Coogan and Reilly do warm up to the task, ably showing the paradoxical nature of the pair; Coogan’s Laurel, normally hunched over and feeble on screen, is far more business-savvy and confident in real-life, whilst Reilly’s Hardy is brash and bawdy when acting but riddled with self-doubt in regards to his personal health.
The film’s other double-act is Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), the wives of the duo; the former, Hardy’s partner, is nervy when it comes to the mental and physical strain touring places on her husband, whilst the latter, a former actress and ballet dancer, is brash and confident to the point of arrogance. This dichotomy is played for laughs throughout, and is a nice change-up to the rut their husbands find themselves in.
These sparky conversations are regrettably the only occasions when Jeff Pope’s script really fires, as the dialogue between the Laurel & Hardy feels flat, not being funny enough to create regular laughs whilst also failing to land heavy dramatic punches. This is a crying shame and something of a surprise, given his excellent work with Coogan on Philomena, which expertly mixed personal tragedy with light-hearted moments.
Given the shortcomings of the screenplay, the emphasis is on director Jon S. Baird to create a visual flourish, but this is virtually non-existent, with his stamp only being evident in a long opening-take and a lovely shot towards the denouement of the film. The cinematography and production design give the film a cheap look, with the visual style being more reminiscent of a BBC drama rather than a feature-film, and it’s sad that the creativity of the duo’s acts aren’t replicated in the aesthetic of the film.
Ultimately, these are difficult obstacles to overcome; even with the decent performances and the eschewing of the traditional biopic template, the flat visual style and largely mundane script means the characters aren’t brought to life as often as they should be. There are some lovely touches, with the crew clearly loving the work of the central characters, but these are too few and far between, meaning Stan & Ollie is a tender, if unremarkable, ode to one film’s most beloved double acts.