As a film critic, I know all too well the looming specter of obsolescence. The inevitable confrontation with a cold, uncaring reality that grows large like an unwelcome stranger approaching from the not-so-distant horizon, the creeping sense of powerlessness that looms like a shadow over your best efforts as your skill sets become increasingly irrelevant and a dismissive world moves on to its next shiny new distraction. I guess what I’m saying is that Stan and Ollie, director Jon S. Baird’s tragicomic take on the twilight years of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, hit far too close to home for my comfort.
My maudlin musings aside, there’s a lot to love about Stan and Ollie. For Laurel and Hardy fans — and realistically, who wouldn’t be a Laurel and Hardy fan? — stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly masterfully capture the carefree joy that made their real-world counterparts the most successful comedy stars of their age. It’s a testament to the consummate skill and professionalism of these performers that they disappear so fully into their roles. The alacrity with which they embrace the task is truly laudable. Stan and Ollie is worth seeing on the basis of Coogan and Reilly’s performances alone — a commendation that loyal readers will recognize I seldom bestow.
But the script, courtesy of screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena), cuts far deeper than the superficial appeal of Coogan and Reilly’s affable chemistry. It’s a memento mori by way of vaudeville, a story of a friendship that supersedes circumstance and circumspection. Baird depicts Stan and Ollie as a bickering old married couple, their respective vices dragging them down as they march inexorably toward graves both metaphorical and literal. But despite its heavy overtones, the narrative is full of life and conveys a sense of unconventional conviviality that underscores the goodhearted allure of its subjects. Stan and Ollie are us, and we’re good in spite of our flaws.
Baird’s direction, though often workmanlike, nevertheless finds the emotional mark beneath its spit-shined veneer. Both writer and director clearly harbor an affinity for their subject and display an equally evident understanding of its enduring appeal. Baird and Pope get Laurel and Hardy, full stop. Though the historical veracity of their portrayal of Stan and Ollie’s off-screen relationship as entailing gags to match their on-screen antics may well be questionable, it’s an appealing approach — and one that honors the spirit, if not the letter, of the events in question. Cast and crew are making a broader point here, and they do so succinctly and successfully.
If Stan and Ollie proves overly polished, it does so from a position of genuine affection, not affectation. This is the big-screen coda that Laurel and Hardy truly deserve for all of the hours of seemingly frivolous joy they’ve left us all. The fact that the film tactfully avoids glossing over the profound personal toll this exacted on its protagonists is representative of the deeply ingrained respect displayed by everyone involved. This is an imperfect film about imperfect people who surpassed both limitation and expectation to do a great service to their audience — namely, to help them forget their troubles without denying the existence of said. If we live in a world where we can’t have more Laurel and Hardy, then Stan and Ollie will do.