For almost ten years (good lord, ten years!), one of the unwritten rules of Big Screen Berkeley has been ‘don’t review biopics, especially biopics about really famous people.’ By and large, the rule has been a success, helping me avoid such casting misfires as Naomi Watts as Princess Diana, Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs,and Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange.
Like most rules, though, this one was made to be broken from time to time — see, for example, my 2013 review of Hannah Arendt — and now, thanks to Stan and Ollie, I’m again going to temporarily set it aside.
Opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Jan. 18, director Jon S. Baird’s tribute to the legendary and (still) much loved comedy team certainly doesn’t do anything new with the genre, but thanks to perfect casting and Jeff Pope’s sensitive, respectful screenplay doesn’t need to.
Though Stan and Ollie begins in Hollywood during the filming of their 1937 feature Way Out West, it’s not about the team’s glory days, but their twilight years’ tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. This being a low-budget British film, that’s as much out of necessity as of choice, but it’s a decision that ultimately works to the film’s advantage: all but the most hardcore Laurel and Hardy fans will be unfamiliar with the closing chapter of the duo’s career.
Stan and Ollie suggests that after almost 30 years together, the two comics had developed a somewhat fractious and strained relationship. I don’t know whether or not the disagreements the film depicts accurately represent genuine differences between the boys, but they do provide sufficient (if somewhat anemic) moments of drama and conflict.
Consequently, the film provides neither dramatic fireworks nor a well-footnoted plod through history. No matter: most viewers will be utterly delighted by the film’s gently humorous approach and the letter-perfect performances of Steve Coogan as Cumbrian funnyman Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as his Georgia-born foil, Oliver Hardy.
Simply put, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Coogan and Reilly in these roles. There are moments in Stan and Ollie – many of them – when you’ll be convinced you’re watching the genuine article, miraculously resurrected over half a century after their departure from this vale of tears. Those of us of a certain age grew up watching the real thing on television, 8mm, and elsewhere; this is as real as the real thing, but in color.
In short, the film’s success begins and ends with Coogan and Reilly’s performance, though kudos must also be extended to Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the boys’ long suffering wives. One of the film’s many pleasures is watching the boys try to outwit their real life spouses in similar fashion to the way they attempted – invariably without success – to outwit their onscreen ones.
It’s also to Baird and Pope’s great credit that Way Out West’s dancing sequence serves as their film’s framing device. I’ve long thought this was the team’s most sublime and charming moment on film, and apparently I’m not alone. If you’ve ever enjoyed Laurel and Hardy, you simply must make time for Stan and Ollie.