You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Stan & Ollie’

Portraying Laurel and Hardy's final comic collaboration with bittersweet affection, Jon S. Baird's film is a laid-back, gamely performed tribute.

Jon S. Baird
John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda
Release Date:
Dec 28, 2018

1 hour 37 minutes

Stan Laurel, the slimmer British half of Hollywood double act Laurel and Hardy, was not one to wax lyrical about the art or mystique of comedy: “You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly,” he said, making vaudeville performance sound altogether as methodical and prosaic as shopping for groceries. No matter how ebullient their joint mugging, Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick routines were work, not play. In “Stan & Ollie,” a gently elegiac portrayal of the pair’s final comic collaboration — a low-rent music hall tour of the U.K. and Ireland in 1953 — the physical and emotional toll of that labor finally shows through their threadbare antics. Well-rehearsed performance chemistry is merely a veneer behind which the two veterans, as tenderly played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, find themselves struggling to click.

That the story of two stars once among the surest commercial bets in Classical Hollywood has become a low-key arthouse item is an irony that plays right into the wistful nostalgia of Jon S. Baird’s lovingly assembled film. “Stan & Ollie” toys throughout with a wry acknowledgement of its subjects’ fading relevance and audience appeal; the Sony Pictures Classics release will be counting on its own leads’ combined charm and cachet to spur word of mouth among mature viewers when the film goes into limited release Stateside on December 28. For Reilly’s admirers, the film serves as apposite counter-programming to the near-simultaneous multiplex release of “Holmes & Watson,” a vehicle for his own comic double act with Will Ferrell; the actor’s droll but subtly anguished turn as the ailing Oliver Hardy is perhaps the richest attraction here.

Significantly dialing down his directorial swagger from the levels of his raucous 2013 Irvine Welsh adaptation “Filth,” Baird opens proceedings with a virtuoso prologue that proves deliberately misleading: a sustained six-minute tracking shot that follows Laurel and Hardy, at the zenith of their fame in 1937, through a whirling, chattering carnival of backlot business as they walk and talk their way to the set of their latest throwaway comedy. Executed with aplomb by Ben Wheatley’s regular d.p. Laurie Rose, it’s a high-impact magic-of-the-movies setpiece swiftly undercut by the tetchy, contract-related squabbling that ensues between Laurel (Coogan) and oily producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), with the former pursuing a new partnership with 20th-Century Fox. Yet once the cameras roll and the pair launches into a daintily choreographed comic dance number, the magic’s back on — even amid conflict, Laurel and Hardy turn on their sweet silliness as if flicking a light switch.

When we cut to 1953, however, the film’s energy aptly slows and dims as palpably as Laurel and Hardy’s backstage rapport: It’s been eight years since their last studio picture, two years since an abysmal attempted comeback in the Europudding “Atoll K,” and it looks unlikely that Hollywood will ever come knocking again. Arriving in rain-sodden Newcastle, England, they’re checked into a third-rate boarding house by plummy theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones, hamming deliciously): These squalid digs are the first clue that the British stage tour Delfont has arranged for the hard-up has-beens will be less prestigious than promised.

Still, a gig is a gig, and a pro is a pro. Even playing to sparse crowds in creaky regional venues, Laurel and Hardy perform their trusty old material with fluid, intuitive flair, getting the laughs in all the right places. Reilly and Coogan’s recreated routines, in turn, bob along with a mixture of slavish reverence and winking force of personality, alternately imitating and interpreting the star quality of their characters. With the help of some mortifying publicity measures, the houses begin to sell out, eventually securing the pair a prime booking at London’s Lyceum Theater. Just as their act hits its stride, however, the personal dynamic between the two frays to a slender thread, aggravated by simmering resentments from their Hollywood days; meanwhile, the hope that their stage tour will secure a British film studio’s backing of their planned Robin Hood spoof “Rob ‘Em Good” looks ever more pie-in-the-sky.

This is mellow, twilight-mood material that would have one direction to shuffle in even if it weren’t bound to biographical fact, but it’s a moving wind-down, teased by mortal concerns as well as an existential fear more unique to the thespian life: What can an actor do without an act? Lest things get too morose, however, the quick, verbally limber script by Jeff Pope (Coogan’s co-writer on “Philomena”) lends some welcome itch-and-scratch to proceedings, as does the spry, spritzy friction worked up by the ensemble. Reilly and Coogan may obviously hog the spotlight here, but a secondary, more peppery personality duel between Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, both ideally cast as the comedians’ contrastingly skeptical wives Lucille and Ida, more surprisingly lands many of the film’s loudest laughs.

Ceding the flash to its cast for the most part, “Stan & Ollie” is otherwise content to be a quiet class act, made with cozy care and affection in all departments from Rolfe Kent’s balmy score right down to costume designer Guy Speranza’s wittily character-specific neckwear choices. Indeed, the film’s confidence falters only when it transposes the hapless slapstick of the duo’s screen act to their everyday reality. If a couple of labored gags around hauling luggage don’t fully land, that rather proves how much more art went into Laurel and Hardy’s craft than they ever chose to let on.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Stan & Ollie'

Reviewed at London Film Festival (closer), Oct. 21, 2018. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.)/Entertainment One (in U.K.) release of a BBC Films, Entertainment One presentation of a Sonesta Films, Fable Pictures production in association with Entertainment One Features, Baby Cow Films. (International sales: Sierra/Affinity, Los Angeles.) Producer: Faye Ward. Executive producers: Xavier Marchand, Kate Fasulo, Joe Oppenheimer, Nichola Martin, Jeff Pope, Eugenio Perez, Gabrielle Tana, Christine Langan. Co-producer: Jim Spencer.

Crew: Director: Jon S. Baird. Screenplay: Jeff Pope. Camera (color): Laurie Rose. Editors: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Billy Sneddon. Music: Rolfe Kent.

With: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston.

More Film

  • Aracne

    Chile’s Sanfic, Mexico’s Morbido Fest Pact to Promote Latino Horror (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mexican horror festival Morbido and Chile’s Santiago Intl. Film Festival (Sanfic) have agreed on a long-term collaboration intended to strengthen the genre film industry in Chile and across Latin America. This partnership will see Morbido representatives attend the Sanfic industry section each year to aid in the promotion of horror projects and advise those projects [...]

  • Tom Holland'Spider-Man: Homecoming' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Tom Holland Addresses Spider-Man’s Studio Divorce at D23: ‘I Love You 3000’

    British actor Tom Holland showed face on the main stage at D23 on Saturday, in the thick of an ugly studio battle over the rights to his iconic Marvel character Spider-Man. Headlines have been rolling in for days about the contentious battle for the cinematic future of the hero, after Sony Pictures became unwilling to [...]

  • Soul Movie

    Pixar's 'Soul' Announces Voice Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey to Star

    Disney debuted a first look at upcoming Pixar film “Soul” at the D23 expo in Anaheim, Calif. and announced its star-studded voice cast. “Soul” imagines that every person on earth comes pre-installed with a soul formed and perfected in a cosmic realm. Jamie Foxx will play a middle-school music teacher on earth who dreams of [...]

  • Emma Stone Variety Actors on Actors

    First Look at Emma Stone in Disney's Live-Action 'Cruella' Drops

    Emma Stone’s Cruella de Vil is significantly more punk rock than her animated counterpart. Stone appeared via video message to debut the first look of the titular character in Disney’s “Cruella” at D23 on Saturday, also revealing that it will take place in the punk rock era of the 1970s. In the first photo, Stone [...]

  • ‘Mulan’ Star Skips D23 Press Amid

    'Mulan' Star Crystal Yifei Liu Skips D23 Amid International Controversy

    Crystal Yifei Liu, the star of Disney’s live action remake of “Mulan,” skipped the press line and Disney panel at Disney’s D23 expo Saturday in the heat of the #BoycottMulan controversy. Unlike the other portions of the Saturday Disney panel, which featured both stars and directors for the other films presented, the “Mulan” panel was [...]

  • Marvel Stars Want Tom Holland's Spider-Man

    Marvel Stars Want to Keep Tom Holland's Spider-Man in the MCU

    Marvel fans aren’t the only ones heartbroken that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man might not be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe anymore. “It really is sad. First off, he’s the greatest Spider-Man to me. He actually has that youthful energy,” Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Scarlet Witch in the MCU, told Variety at D23 on Friday. “He’s been [...]

  • Kit Harington

    'Game of Thrones' Star Kit Harington Joins 'The Eternals'

    Jon Snow is leaving the North. “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington is joining the cast of “The Eternals” as Dane Whitman, also known as the Black Knight, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige announced Saturday on the main stage at D23. Feige also confirmed Gemma Chan’s appearance in the film as Sersi, another member of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content