On the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia…
The awards race may be pivoting further away from conventional biopics each year, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of star studded adaptations of true stories making their way to the screen. In this year’s prestige film season, no film seems quite as self-consciously engineered for middlebrow respectability quite like Stan & Ollie. It’s detrimental to discuss any film solely within the confines of its awards hopes, and yet here is a film that will certainly cease to exist in the popular imagination should it not rack up the required nominations. Despite the spot-on casting of the two leads, it’s a toothless, forgettable biopic; it’s the type of film that feels like compulsory viewing for film fans during the awards race due to its respectable veneer, but will slip quickly into irrelevance the moment it ceases to be relevant to the cultural conversation.
Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) are returning to the stage in the early 1950s to tour the UK while awaiting the green light for their comeback film, a Robin Hood parody. The tour is failing to capture the attention of the public, while Stan Laurel’s attempts to woo a major film producer into financing their long gestating film prove to go nowhere – but as potential success looks likely to return for the pair, old wounds about a studio contract dispute are re-opened.
Director Jon S. Baird’s previous film, 2013’s Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, showed that he had a sense of visual style, even if it was constrained by the shoestring budget. The material he’s working with here couldn’t be any more different – the jet black transgressive comedy replaced with a gentleness that’s suitable for all the family. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but it does prove that he is something of an anonymous filmmaker; the two works are stylistically disparate, and don’t offer any insight as to what Baird is interested in exploring in his films. One is a black comedy with a half hearted redemption arc. The other is a mildly diverting biopic told with little in the way of surprises, even if you aren’t familiar with the Laurel and Hardy story. Middlebrow biopics of this ilk are largely uninteresting because they’ve been conceived with lofty intentions outside of solely making a good film, but when put together by an anonymous, workmanlike craftsman who seems to pick projects he doesn’t have a personal connection to, the inauthenticity becomes even more pronounced.
The film is partially redeemed by its central performances, even though the pitch perfect casting will leave you wishing Coogan and Reilly were depicting the world famous double act in a better movie. Coogan, here, overcomes his usual quirks as a comedic actor to step into the shoes of the Ulveston-born iconic performer with more success than expected – it might be his first comedic role that couldn’t conceivably called “Partridge-esque”. it might not be the most accurate depiction of the man, but it’s the rare Coogan performance that never once lies within the shadow of his most famous role.
John C. Reilly’s performance equally seemed like a case of perfect casting that could be ruined by a distracting element, in this case, the prosthetics that have helped him transform into Oliver Hardy. It’s the rare performance that manages to overcome these external factors; Reilly becomes the comic legend, offering the pathos where Coogan more overtly tries to tap into the physical comic characteristics of the performer. Coogan’s turn is a well-honed impression, but Reilly’s feels more human and less concerned with mimicking a real life figure – and feels all the more powerful as a result.
But there is nothing of greater depth to the film beneath the heavy lifting the two central actors are undertaking. Despite charting a particularly turbulent moment in their career as a double act, its approach to the conflict between the pair feels half hearted and rushed through, in order to quickly manoeuvre to more recreations of their live routines. Upon introducing their UK tour as failing to pull in audiences, the film refrains from any deeper introspection from the characters as to their place in a changing culture so as to rush to depicting them subsequently selling out shows days later. There are interesting dissections of the pair’s legacy left on the margins, ignored in order to rush through the stereotypical biopic beats.
It could also be argued that Baird doesn’t have the most extensive knowledge of their filmography either; it’s rare for a biopic of this ilk to refrain from Easter eggs referencing their extensive body of work, to exclusively hone in on just a couple of their more well known films. For example, their short film The Music Box is both called back to in a visual gag, and later is referenced in all but name at an awkward dinner party. That I managed to pick up on this, despite a less than incisive knowledge of their filmography, suggests that this wasn’t made by the most die hard of fans. There’s no problem with the film being solely aimed at those who may not have extensive knowledge of the pair – but it feels like it was made by people with the same limited knowledge too.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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