After Stan & Ollie finished, all I could think of was Bohemian Rhapsody. This was not unusual for me at the time. Bryan Singer’s travesty that we were politely referring to as a “movie” had really wormed its way into my psyche. Not just because it was so bad— and it was so unbelievably bad— but also because everyone seemed to like it. When I asked anyone why their answer was “it’s about Queen, why wouldn’t I like it?”
This shouldn’t surprise me, of course, people love biopics. There’s something exciting about seeing people who were real brought to life on screen. The issue is that biopics are often awful. There exists, I think, a desire to capture every part of a person’s life.
This leads to what I call Wikipedia syndrome, where the biopic becomes a glorified Wikipedia page, just checking off important moments. Examples of this include The Theory of Everything (tiring), The Danish Girl (frustratingly inept), and of course Bohemian Rhapsody (the absolute worst).
It’s easy to forget that a biopic is still a movie, with a beating emotional core. The best biopics rarely chart the subjects whole life, but instead, focus on important moments and spin a beautiful narrative out of that. A few examples of this include Steve Jobs, The Social Network, and now Stan & Ollie.
Stan & Ollie is not interested in mapping the entire career of Laurel and Hardy. Director Jon S. Baird trusts that you either know who they are, or that you are smart enough to figure it out along the way. We’ve seen enough comedic duos in our time— Abbott and Costello come to mind— to understand how the dynamic works even if we’re not wholly familiar with this specific one.
We start in 1953. Laurel and Hardy have been split for years. They are both in a slump after failed solo careers. The audience was only interested in them when they were a pair. More than that, Laurel and Hardy found that alone they lacked that je ne sais quoi they possessed together.
Laural and Hardy, as we quickly find out, are embarking on a nostalgia-fuelled reunion tour. They hope it’ll be a big enough splash to help them launch a film project. This is where the historical date checking ends. While I am almost certain that the tour dates and locations cited on occasion throughout the movie are accurate, they are there to add realism to the story, not to be the focus.
Rather Stan & Ollie chooses to focus on the relationship between the two titular characters. That the film uses their first names rather than their more famous last names is a sign of this alone. Jon S. Baird is not here to recount their whole lives, he’s here to capture a moment as deeply and intimately as possible.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are, in this regard, perfectly cast. While the make-up certainly succeeds in making the leading men look the part, it’s their performances that make us believe that they are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Coogan and Reilly recreate iconic Laurel and Hardy comedy skits with the reverence they deserve.
Still present in Stan & Ollie are the clichés that plague so many bad biopics. Conflict that drives the leading men apart at the end of the second act arrives on schedule, as does the unexpected twist that brings them back together. So too, does the sweeping finale— itself reminiscent of Bohemian Rhapsody.
However, the two leading performances and the gentle direction of Jon C. Baird help Stan & Ollie transcend these clichés. There’s a beating heart at the core of this film. Even if it was not a biopic Stan & Ollie would still be affecting and wonderful. The formulaic plot is a frame upon which hangs a rich emotional tapestry. That it is a film about real people almost feels incidental.
This is not the tale of Laurel and Hardy’s entire career. It’s a story about two men who only know how to succeed, how to exist with each other. Stan & Ollie is an ode to performers. It earns the right to dabble in distracting clichés because its earnestness deafens us to everything but the emotion that drives the story.
By the time the finale – the one I compared to that of Bohemian Rhapsody – wraps up, and the credits begin to roll, you’ll have forgotten that this was a movie about real people. I say that in the best possible way. Before it’s a biopic Stan & Ollie is a story of sacrifice, of pain, of loss, of endings, and of a friendship that is strong enough to make all those things not only durable by joyous.