Steve Coogan and John C Reilly excel as Stan & Ollie in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet biopic of the end of a comedy duo – and an era.
Double Troubleby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
For me, Laurel and Hardy are forever associated with miserable afternoons as a child squirming on uncomfortable wooden benches in the village hall having to watch, as a treat, barely understood black and white short films shown on a rickety projector. It inculcated a lifelong hatred of their slapstick shtick.
That said, Stan & Ollie is a well-made biopic, directed by Jon S Baird (Filth. that opens a sympathetic window into the real lives of the comedy partnership. It starts when they are stars at the top of their game, showing them in a long tracking shot walking through the Hollywood lot of their latest film. But the main thrust is twenty years later, when times and tastes have changed and the duo, not quite yet has-beens but definitely on their way down, are seeking a career revival through an apparently misjudged tour of provincial music halls in Britain, their overnight stays meriting only run-down boarding houses for ‘theatricals’, not five-star hotels, so low has their status sunk.
Casting fits the two leads like a glove. Steve Coogan nails Stan Laurel’s Lancashire accent and hang-dog shabbiness. He turns out to be the business brains of the pair, writer of their sketches and organiser of their tour. John C Reilly, on an career roll lately (The Sisters Brothers), unrecognisable under excellent fat prosthetics, as Oliver Hardy is the heart of the two, sociable and unconfrontational – a big softie.
To everyone’s surprise, the tour generates one final spasm of success. They graduate to bigger, metropolitan venues and the Savoy Hotel, and their two wives arrive from the US. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda (Mrs Hardy and Mrs Laurel respectively) are a character-filled double act in their own right.
When their lives and careers wind down as age takes its toll, Stan and Ollie’s partnership redefines itself from double act to bromance. It’s all bittersweeet and rather touching. And it’s given me a greater, though still grudging, appreciation of their artistic mastery of a comic tradition that was nearing its sell-by date.