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Stan & Ollie (2019)

5 crumblies

Okay, it’s been a while. Apologies. Prostate and arse problems. You don’t want to know; I don’t really want to share. But, for the record, I love the NHS and most of the bleary-eyed professionals who came at me with a scalpel and steady hands. They did what they did; old Jack here whinged like someone had performed major surgery on his intimates; we are where we are. I have special cushions, a new love of ice packs, and am glad to be writing this in 2019. Reviews may be more sporadic, given I’m too knackered for the TV room and too scared to go on many day trips, but, for the love of Stan & Ollie, I braved a special day at the cinema. Never felt so relieved to see blood-red seats and a gorgeous tale of old friends in their dying fall.

The film is lovely. I’ve been a fan since catching some theatrical replays as a kid, enjoying those crappy copies on the BBC in the 1970s, and basking in a box-set of beautiful prints Young Steve bought me in the 2000s. And by beautiful I mean so crystal clear you find yourself respecting the professionalism and creativity of two quality comedians rather than peering into the black and white shadows with faint exasperation and boredom. Laurel and Hardy, in amongst a crowd of musical hall smart-arsery and their messy lives, were simply terrific. Fun, funny, accessible and utterly deft in their comedy. Laurel was the writer-director-overseer; Hardy the nimblest owner of the moment with a real life beyond the camera. And – kids, middlers and oldsters – go back and love them again. Stan & Ollie is for you.

Of course, its charm is in the sweetness and challenges between old male friends. Colleagues, first, absolutely, but two souls trapped in their success and ambling along past their prime, waiting for the next movie to materialise, and touring the music halls of Britain. So, friends, then. Why else keep going?

The film is based on a book Mrs Jack bought me a long time ago. A cool document of their British tours, detailed and for the aficionado, it’s an acknowledged inspiration for the film, but is wholly surpassed by the script and acting on display here. Unlike the BBC’s maudlin Stan of a decade ago (YouTube, folks) , Stan & Ollie builds out their friendship, is never less than warm and funny, but isn’t afraid to take them into difficult (if Plotting 1.01ish) territory. Cos they have bad audiences, a drive for publicity, good audiences, and health and friendship problems that made old Jack here love them all the more.

John C. Reilly is warm, dainty, gentle and gloriously well-timed as Ollie. His fat-suit is soon forgotten as he plays out the slapstick, health terrors and second-fiddle to a spikier performance from Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. The latter is the fighter losing his last business battle and – in the end – his best friend. They are beautiful together, at once familiar and correct, whilst using the script to show how difficult men can find it to let the pride go and just talk. At times, they hide behind rehearsals of a film yet to be.

Both are matched by lively, unexpected performances from Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the duo’s wives, Lucille and Ida. These two modernise the film and its humour, whilst epitomising the 1950s chic. Stan and Ollie give us a deep, rich old friendship at its end; Lucille and Ida spark and fizz at one another and frame the central pair with a fresh energy.

Which all adds up to something lovely. The plot is real life, so not something to ponder on. They’re old, they remember the past and struggle through their present (Hal Roach and Bernard Delfont comedy-caricature book-ends to their career), whilst touring the UK and being recognised, pitied or loved. And they get the comedy right; and the old songs still play to the heart. And – ah – that final dance…

Old Jack here had forgotten his special pants after ten minutes and basked in a movie made with quality performances, good humour and love. Go see it. I’m smiling just typing about it.

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