“Je ne regrette rien. And you shouldn’t regret rien either.”
Stan & Ollie (2018) is the right comedy for our troubled times. It’s a joyful expression of comedic glee and genius, expressed through the two comic auteurs, Stan Laurel (a just right Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (a transcendent John C. Riley, melting into his character). It was so rare for any act to transition so successfully from silent to sound pictures (see Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936)). Lovely opening tracking shots bring us right onto their set for the beloved Way Out West (1937), flush with prodigious Old Hollywood sets and a sense of craft and excitement hanging in the air. They were at their prime, making yet another Hal Roach picture, the pinnacle of comedy, but frustrated by not owning and making their own art. Stan & Ollie, however, is a latter-day piece, fast-forwarding to the final days of the act, where the duo have faced the financial repercussions of not owning their work, and go on one final European tour, for the love of comedy, and each other.
Stan & Ollie’s greatest gag is a brilliant never before filmed “double door routine”, an act of missed connections. Our stars enter and exit through a booth at what seems to be a station. They do loops around one another, always barely missing the other’s sightlines, and hilariously drawing the joke out as far as it can go. They walk, back to back, turning and searching for their lost partner. What is especially great is that this is unique to the film – an act taken on tour but not filmed – that expresses the duo’s relationship perfectly. They are comedically in-tune, but always missing the other person. It is a kind of love story; their troop was about the very tangible relationship they had. When “Babe” Hardy suffers an untimely death, like partners in marriage, Laurel never recovers, vowing never to perform again, on stage or film, and continued writing for his late partner for the remainder of his life.
There are few better expressions of friendship. While we have the stunning documents of the duo’s work well preserved, it is an absolute pleasure, as a comedy student, to have such a lovely portrayal of their personal lives. It’s like joining cinematic heroes on their final vacation together. Coogan finds his greatest potential yet in Stan, committing to repeating jokes about his difficulty managing luggage. Philomena (2013) collaborator Jeff Pope has sketched Coogan’s character wonderfully. When the group arrive to London, Stan reflects, “There it is, the Eiffel tower,” as the train rolls past the London Bridge. His timing is perfect, and Reilly is a great comedy partner. They establish clear chemistry early on. Special note for Reilly’s dedication, passing off the larger stature of his character and sporting some of the finest make-up work. There are moments where we completely forget we are watching roles, that this is not an authentic relationship between two people who love each other. Consider their differences, Stan, an English disciple of Chaplin’s comedy school and Ollie, son of a Confederate, and a young theater manager, with his heart in the arts. The casting here feels just right. It certainly seems that they found the same love and comradery, to the great success of the film.
There’s a heavy moment where the duo has a very public falling out. They’re at odds, working on separate projects, and may be cutting one another out of their future, to the great personal cost of their reputation. A large party takes in their public row and a woman asks, “Was it funny?” That moment engulfs the great pain of the comedian and especially the comic who works in a troop. There is always some darkness there. Between these two stars, they were able to provoke the very best from their best friend. Stan & Ollie is a touching film that will help us laugh and cry in equal measure.