REVIEW: A fine mess – Stan & Ollie struggle to capture the old magic in John S Baird’s gloomy recreation of their early 1950s tour of Britain & Ireland.
It seems to be the fate of all dead comedians, if they are remembered at all, to be remembered for their failures. Stan & Ollie is just the latest in a long line of tears-of-a-clown biopics that takes individuals who spent their live cheering up millions and reducing them to glum has-beens withering in the twilight of their careers.
The film opens well. A prologue finds the duo at the height of their fame, arguing with each other and movie mogul, Hal Roach, about their status at his studio and their perceived lack of sufficient reward. Stan (Steve Coogan) wants to found their own production company; Ollie (John C Reilly), prone to the expensive pursuits of gambling and womanising, is keen to avoid any friction with the management. Their opposing instincts eventually lead to a break-up: Stan walks; Ollie, still contracted to Roach, is reduced to making a humiliating ‘elephant picture’ with a new sidekick.
This is all covered in the opening five minutes, and nobody seems to have recognised that they’ve just dispensed with enough drama and conflict necessary for a compelling film all of its own, and one with the potential to be mitigated by accounts of the duo operating at the height of their talents.
Nobody involved seems sure of why Laurel and Hardy were funny
Instead we cut to rainy old England in the early 1950s. The pair are fatter, older, wrinkled and past-it. But money is short, their star has waned, and they have found themselves forced to reunite, playing to half-empty houses on the British music-hall circuit. That their day is done is constantly hammered home. Their tour manager, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) is evasive, neglecting these former Hollywood big-shots in favour of local rising star, Norman Wisdom – and do showbiz humiliations come any worse than that? Everyone they encounter quips about how long they’ve been at it, how stale their material is.
It’s an ambivalence that, unforgivably, the film seems to share. Nobody involved seems sure of why Laurel and Hardy were funny. When they get up to various bits of business for the amusement of hotel receptionists or hapless passersby, it’s treated as vaguely pathetic. They are met by wan smiles or polite befuddlement.
The on-stage recreations, despite being met with guffaws on-screen, are likely to leave the viewer similarly nonplussed. There’s no doubt that actors as talented and meticulous as John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are recreating the act with pin-point accuracy, but it nevertheless has an airless quality. The film-makers might argue that nothing dates quite as fast as comedy, that 21st Century post-modernist audiences simply won’t get it – but it only takes a brief visit to YouTube to look up the originals and be reassured that the material still works; it’s the film that’s unsure of itself.
The pair deserve better
As Laurel, Coogan has all the mannerisms down but never really vanishes into the part. Like in previous outings as real people, Paul Raymond or Martin Sixsmith, Alan Partridge always seems to be seeping through. He isn’t helped by a clunky script that leaves him forced to deliver long screeds of unlikely exposition. There are lots of arguments of the ‘you did this to me in 1936 and I’ve never been able to forgive you’ variety, in which one character will tell another something they would already know, purely for the benefit of the audience.
Reilly is more relaxed in a looser (and as a result more convincing) interpretation of Ollie, but the extensive prosthetics are distracting. With his rubbery double chin and inflated hands, he looks like he’s climbed into Mike Myers’ ‘Fat Bastard’ suit from Austin Powers 2.
Crucially, it’s not Coogan or Reilly who get the best lines but their formidable wives. They could so easily be reduced to shrewish stereotypes, but Shirley Henderson provides Lucille Hardy with a brittle sensitivity, while Nina Arianda is hilarious as Laurel’s imperious other-half Ida Kitaeva. They exchange waspish quips more convincingly than either Stan or Ollie (‘two double acts for the price of one’, remarks Delfont) and a more daring, more interesting picture might have chosen to shift the focus on to them instead.
No expense has been spared in terms of production design. It looks like extensive on-location filming was undertaken to make sure that the London of 1951 was authentically recreated. It’s just a shame that the drama itself never really rises above the level of one of those maudlin BBC4 plays.
The main problem is that the duo’s 1951 British tour (and the making of the misguided Utopia) was by all accounts a dismal period in Laurel and Hardy’s career and it makes for a dismal film. Unlike the sort-of-gritty but ultimately feel-good biopics of other Hollywood legends, like Saving Mr Banks or Hitchcock, it lacks that uplifting element of a triumphant work of art arising from troubled circumstances. There’s no Mary Poppins leaving audiences spellbound, no Psycho sending them screaming down the aisles. Instead, we’re supposed to accept it as heart-warmingly bittersweet when an ailing Hardy, in a flop sweat, manages not to collapse on-stage after performing an old dance routine.
The pair deserve better, and fans would be well advised to save their money and use the time reacquainting themselves with the original features instead.