After returning home from watching ‘Stan & Ollie’ at the cinema, it took me a good few hours to get my feelings in order enough to be able to write this blog and, in a way, that’s quite appropriate, as that’s what the film is all about for me…feelings.
The film focuses primarily on the feelings between Stan and Babe and their relationship with each other in the twilight years of their comedy partnership. But more than that, it’s also about their own inner feelings about themselves and about the stage of life and career that they’ve reached. Further still, it’s about the feelings of the boys’ wives towards their respective husbands and towards each other. And then last but by no means least, there are our feelings – the feelings of the audience, or especially and more specifically, the lifelong, die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans…and it’s surprising just how strong and how deep those feelings do run.
Of course, I’m speaking from personal experience here, being a HUGE fan of Laurel & Hardy for as long as I can remember. There’ll be other cinema-goers whose response to the film is much less dramatic, I’m sure, but I know from reading the social media fan pages, there are thousands of people out there who feel as strongly as I do.
I’ve always found the Laurel & Hardy fan community to be a thoroughly pleasant, good-humoured and supportive environment and whilst the majority of the discussion, leading up to and following the movie’s release, has been well-natured, I’ve been quite surprised to witness some angry outbursts. I guess it illustrates that fans’ feelings about Laurel & Hardy run strong and deep.
So, with all that in mind, I have to think that making this movie at all was actually quite a brave thing to do, given the potential for a backlash from fans. Indeed, Steve Coogan (who plays Stan Laurel) has acknowledged in recent interviews that they knew it was risky. But, I’m glad they took the risk, as I’ve been waiting for a big budget, high profile movie to pay homage to the boys since Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Chaplin’ was released back in 1992 – and finally, it’s here.
As per usual, I’m not going to give a scene by scene description of the movie. Nor am I going to list the film’s factual inaccuracies, as they have already been covered thoroughly by others online, in particular, author Randy Skretvedt gave a very good and detailed rundown of the mistakes and/or fictional elements of the movie. I want only to focus here on my personal thoughts and reaction to the film as a fan.
First off the bat, the film is beautiful to watch and seemed to me to have been made lovingly, with a lot of thought and care for the characters and their legacy. Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly (Ollie) did a fabulous job playing the boys and I really felt that they took their roles incredibly seriously and crafted their performances with such meticulous care and dedication, that I couldn’t have asked for more. Quite a number of fans have mentioned online that they quickly forgot they were watching two actors playing the parts of Stan and Ollie, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen for me. I’m very familiar with Steve Coogan and a lot of his previous work and so I couldn’t switch the part of my brain off that recognised him for who he was, rather than who he was pretending to be. Also, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the size of his hat. It was too big and therefore it didn’t sit up on top of his head in the same way that Stan’s derby (a boy’s flat-brimmed Irish derby) actually did. I also found myself often distracted by looking for tell-tale signs of John C. Reilly’s prosthetics, around his face and hands – not that I ever really did, as the makeup is exceptionally good. But I don’t wish for any of that to sound cruel or disrespectful, or to detract from their performances, as I do have tremendous respect for the effort and skill both men put into playing these iconic roles.
Two people that I wasn’t familiar with, however, are the two ladies who portrayed the boys’ wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda). As a result, I was completely able to accept their characters and thoroughly enjoyed their performances, which I think are one of the movie’s highlights.
Overall, I found the film to be quite melancholy, but in a good way – if that makes any sense. It’s sentimental and it’s sad, yet given the story being told, that felt just about right. I also found it incredibly moving, especially the closing scenes which were very poignant and simply and rather beautifully show the boys’ silhouette’s dancing on the stage’s large curtains. I suppose I didn’t expect to be moved to tears watching a film about Laurel & Hardy, but credit to Director, Jon S. Baird for tapping into those, dare I say that word again, feelings and tugging on the heartstrings – it was executed perfectly.
I very much liked the way they showed actual footage of Stan and Ollie during the end credits and even though that amplified my emotions, I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see the boys as I was at that moment. Especially as the footage was the dance from ‘Way Out West’, when the boys were still in their prime – and my, how great they looked. After spending 90-odd minutes watching two representations of them, in their ageing years, desperately seeking ways to keep their careers and bodies going, suddenly here were my heroes reassuringly returned and looking better than ever. It struck me just how fantastic and natural they were together. How effortless they made all their comedy look. As good and competent a job as Coogan and Reilly did, in direct comparison and performing the same sketches, Laurel & Hardy are of course the real masters. To be fair, creation is always going to look more natural than re-creation.
I wanted ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be good and I wanted to enjoy it. It was and I did, however, I would have liked it to have been more uplifting and celebratory of their wonderful careers, but then that was never its aim.
I’ve heard many people saying that this film is great because it will make a new generation interested in Laurel & Hardy. I hate to say it, but I don’t share that view. I think it will generally entertain passive fans and general movie-goers alike, it may reawaken interest in old fans who have forgotten how much they enjoy the boys’ films, but I just can’t see many young people being inspired to a) watch it in the first place or b) seek out the original movies after watching this one.
It’s a great film lovingly made and sensitively played. For the die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans it’s likely to be ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ territory, but I’m grateful for the affectionate approach all involved appear to have had for it.