Coogan and Reilly have resurrected two comedians whose contribution to film should be remembered.
So here’s one of the beautiful things about living in a world where cable was this magic service that only your richer friends could afford and you survived with only five TV channels: Syndication. When the execs at movie studios started hearing whispers of the development of a technology that would beam televisual images into the homes of any American who could afford a “radio with pictures,” they felt the paradigm shifting and did everything they could to delay TV. The fear was that television was going to kill the movies, but television ended up serving a different function. This new, primitive device needed something that the studios had: Content. TV stations started buying up old movies on the cheap, played them continuously and gave new life to old performers like Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy.
This practice went on for decades, immortalizing the heydays of these once-great stars in black and white amber for a generation or two. But as the media paradigm continues to shift, what little attention had inadvertently been paid to this history has vanished. Everything is moving too fast for even a nanosecond of contemplation.
Thankfully, despite the combined fears of Darryl Zanuck, the Warner Brothers and Louis B. Mayer, movies have yet to cede the stage. Nostalgia of one form or another helps keep the medium alive, and it has become the job of the cinema to tell its own history. Usually, the results are lacking. There’s a penchant for avoiding controversy and unflattering elements in the lives of those who built the industry while opting for hagiography and happy endings. But then there’s the type of biopic that takes such joy in its subject that it drives you down YouTube vortexes looking for old interviews and film clips. Stan and Ollie, directed by Jon S. Baird and starring John C. Reilly as the corpulent Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, is exactly that kind of movie.
Stan and Ollie starts when the duo are at their height. Once they were separate entities toiling for producer Hal Roach at his studio, then the mogul paired them together and struck the comic motherlode. The workaholic Stan Laurel churned out material for the team and managed the business while Ollie indulged in women and the ponies, but they were separate players on separate contracts. Stan watched contemporaries like Keaton and Chaplin own the films they made while Hal Roach suppressed the profits owed to him and Ollie. With his contract up and an offer on the table from another studio, Stan wanted to negotiate new terms. Ollie had one more year on his contract and an aversion to confrontation. He never showed up to the office at the Fox lot where Stan waited to sign that lucrative new deal. Oliver was shooting a film that day with a new partner Roach had found him, an elephant. The film and the metaphor hangs between the two men, ending their partnership and friendship for a time.
From the opening tracking shot, Coogan and Reilly embody Laurel and Hardy. Coogan plays Stan as tenacious and driven, deeply aware of his value and the brains that pushes the team. Reilly makes Ollie the type of star who wears his many indulgences on his waistline. He shows up to work when needed and strives for affability. When he first appears onscreen it is difficult to tell if Reilly has pulled off an awards season weight gain for his role, but the movie jumps ahead sixteen years and the prosthetics and makeup used to age the actor and fatten him are utterly stunning. Reilly transforms into an old aging star, looking for one last break before he can call it a day. He is an old clown breaking down but able to carry himself with a lumbering grace.
That being said, the movie belongs to Coogan. The film is based on a comeback tour Laurel and Hardy made through England in 1953. Stan has put the tour together and goads Ollie along with the promise of a new film at its end. The notion of starring in a Laurel and Hardy take on Robin Hood keeps the old team going while they do their greatest hits to mostly empty houses. Stan keeps pushing, writing the movie on trains, pitching new ideas to Ollie and reworking the old routines to make them precise. Necessity has brought them back together, but Stan still resents Ollie for abandoning him. He has kept a few secrets from Ollie due to this anger, and the revelations nearly destroy Laurel and Hardy again.
This is inarguably a movie about fading stardom, but more importantly it’s a film about two old friends who realize how much they need each other. There is enough warmth in their relationship that it powers the duo through some marginal public relations stunts in an effort to change the fortunes of their final tour. The entire supporting cast is excellent, but special notice must be paid to Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson who play the wives Ida Kitaeva Laurel and Lucille Hardy. As two women forced together for the sake of their husbands, they form a comic duo in their own right and elevate an already exceptional movie.
The formula for nostalgia films typically gets imbalanced by the maudlin and saccharine impulses of the filmmakers. It’s difficult to speak honestly of the dead, let alone ill, but every once in a while a film comes along that celebrates its subject with vivid candor. With Stan and Ollie, Coogan and Reilly have resurrected two comedians whose contribution to film should be remembered. It might also remind you of Sunday mornings in easier times and that initial jolt of love you felt for the movies.