I’ll preface this review by saying that absolutely nothing about Stan and Ollie surprised me. The structure is predictable, it tackles all the themes you think it would, and right down to throwaway lines in the script you know exactly how every conversation is going to go. At times, you can feel like this biopic is going through the motions of its genre. Luckily, this is the only element that knocks any points off the rating for me, because every other element in this loving, optimistic film is so damn perfect.
A decade and a half after making their last film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s double act fame is dwindling, and they are forced to perform a UK tour in order to encourage financial backing for another picture. Though on a surface level this plot sounds potentially bureaucratic and dull, it’s essentially just an excuse to have the two together, both for classic comic performances and for more intimate behind the scenes moments. It also allows for a fascinatingly simple look at the intersection between comedy and tragedy – some of the most subtly heartbreaking moments in the film also hold the most humour, reflecting their own slapstick tradition.
And of course, none of this would work without the outstanding performances the movie is built around. John C Reilly, a criminally underrated dramatic actor, is absolutely perfect as Ollie, nailing the comic routines whilst still conveying the sadness and sweetness at the heart of his story. His makeup is completely unclockable, with Reilly successfully working with it rather than against it to get across the subtlety that was required for the character. While I preferred Reilly by a hair, Steve Coogan as Stan was also wonderful, keeping the balance between being a somewhat calculating figure at times, and yet also a total sweetheart fully committed to his friends and family. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda also deserve a mention for their respective turns as the wives of the comedians, who are brilliant foils for both Stan and Ollie and each other.
Unusually for a film like this, I was stunned by how careful and deliberate the camerawork was. Cinematographer Laurie Rose imbues much more meaning in each scene than the script itself often does, making frequent use of graphical matches and long takes to chart the journey of the duo, and the effort behind the scenes necessary in creating the pure joy onscreen. The final scene is undeniably a standout in this regard – I had seen a glimpse in the trailer and was waiting for it the entire time – as the camera dips and dives around the two dancing together, almost as if it was dancing with them.
At first glance, Stan and Ollie may seem like award bait material, focusing on historical Hollywood icons in order to create a fake air of prestige. The film is as far from pretention as it could possibly be, and instead creates an atmosphere of fun steeped in misery – ultimately, what Laurel and Hardy were all about.