Over the last few years, there have been a series of British film releases each January which achieve minor prospects in the awards season and which can be labelled as “shortbread tin cinema”, on account of their historical period aesthetic, lack of flashiness, and a sort of parochial attitude that only appeals to filmgoers over the age of 40. Representatives of this sub-genre of British filmmaking include Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and to this canon, one must add Jon S. Baird’s rather slow and curiously unengaging biopic Stan and Ollie, detailing the twilight years of the legendary Hollywood double act Laurel and Hardy.
Aside from a brief prologue in 1937 wherein Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) film the saloon dance from one of their most famous features, Way Out West, the majority of Baird’s film takes place in a 1953 afterlife, long after the pair’s heyday has faded, as they embark on a reunion tour of Britain’s music halls and small theatres to stay financially afloat (the men did not own the rights to their own pictures and thus made nothing from the TV reruns of their films) as well as attempting to drum up interest in a Robin Hood-themed comeback project that Stan is continually writing gags for. Recycling their old routines and setpieces to dwindling audiences, the aging duo must simultaneously contend with their chalk-and-cheese wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda), Ollie’s failing health, and a long-standing resentment over their previous professional split, all of which leads to a reckoning over the very essence of their personal relationship.
The eponymous protagonists of Stan and Ollie’s are unquestionably deserving of their own biopic – aside from their status as part of classical Hollywood iconography and for being the only silent cinema-era slapstick comedians who successfully transferred their on-screen characters into the “talkies” era, in a career stretching over 107 films, there is an historical imperative to spread awareness of cinema’s origins and revive an appreciation for its most famous early adopters and practitioners amongst younger generations. Gone are the days of mid-morning matinees of pre-1960 films on terrestrial channels.
And yet, one must wonder if this narrowly focused biopic, eschewing the grand sweep of Laurel and Hardy’s career in favour of following their bookend farewell tour, truly best represents the comedic and cinematic value of the fabled couple. While several Laurel and Hardy skits are re-enacted on music hall stages, the bland milieu of the 1950s British setting and repetitiveness of uninteresting locations (hotel bedrooms, theatre wings, train carriages) makes for an oddly uncinematic rendering of a quintessential tale about cinema itself – this biopic more naturally resembles a TV movie at Christmas. In the rightly feted impersonations by Coogan and Reilly (sporting distractingly rubbery fake jowls), the film’s characterisation of Stan and Ollie as dejected and feeble husks of the entertainers they once were ostensibly seeks to transform the duo into figures of tragic pathos – which is all well and good, if only the film’s narrative presented any semblance of a dramatically potent series of events. Instead, Stan and Ollie offers a monotonous catalogue of the two comedians commenting on their diminishing fame.
This critique should be qualified, however, with the opinion that the emotional arc of Stan and Ollie thankfully avoids descending too far into schmaltz, erring on the side of gentle affection. Nevertheless, this gentle tone becomes in itself an overpowering force when watching the film; so anaemic and slow is the action and pace that Stan and Ollie can sometimes feel like being smothered by a feathery pillow. Incredulously, this film was steered to the screen by the same filmmaker behind the wickedly irreverent 2013 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth, which hopefully suggests that Stan and Ollie is merely a palate cleanser before Jon S. Baird embarks on a project that possesses the lifeforce of his earlier film.