It only takes about 10 minutes of Stan & Ollie before you’re hit with the sense that something is off. And boy, does it hit: a black title screen with the words “16 Years Later” printed on it, in that quintessential font of early-century cinema, slapped at the tail end of the very first scene. We meet Stan (Stanley Laurel, played by Steve Coogan), we meet Ollie (Oliver Hardy; John C. Reilly), we learn that they star in comedies for a major Hollywood studio and that they have misgivings about that relationship. And then it’s all over, 16 years in the past.
For a second, we were in 1937. In that year, Laurel & Hardy were all the rage: a legendary comedy duo, made famous by films where the odd couple gets into a litany of bizarre situations & struggles to go a moment without making each other look foolish. Stan & Ollie is a film written by Jeff Pope (who previously worked with Coogan on Philomena) and directed by Jon S. Baird; Pope has said that Laurel & Hardy are his “heroes,” so it’s more than a little odd to see him, only a few minutes in, cut from their heyday to the years when their stars were fading.
The thing that changes the most across those missing years isn’t the men so much as the film itself. The opening sequence is played as a single tracking shot, carrying us through the studio backlot, passing sets and props and actors and animals with a technical grace that’s purposefully modern and heavy with momentum. And then, suddenly, we’re in the 50’s, in England: things are a little dour, a little damp, and we get very clean cuts between the speaking parties. Laurel & Hardy are here, at a rather quaint hotel, to kick off their new European tour. Hardy is fatter than he was sixteen years ago, and both men are grayer, but there aren’t many other shifts – if there’s a chilliness to their partnership, we might not notice it until Laurel calls his wife in the next scene. “How’s he been to you?” she asks him.
The new setting doesn’t waste time in establishing a wildly different tone: Laurel, for a reason unexplained, has brought a classically ludicrous amount of luggage with him, and the sound editor doesn’t waste a moment of his off-screen entrance in hammering home the joke. *Clang*, *boom*, *bang* – “That’s TOO much luggage!” we’re invited, bizarrely, to think to ourselves, as Hardy stands at the desk and waits for his partner to join him. That full-on gag quickly becomes another, when the men both stand at the reception desk and play out an obviously-rehearsed bit around the ringing of the service bell, even though the concierge is standing right in front of them.
So we’re given two nicely-constructed and totally unoriginal jokes (by contemporary standards), back to back. The first seems to be serendipitous, if still silly. But the second has all the makings of an endless meta-theatrical loop: are the two men doing this routine for themselves, or for us, or for the woman at the counter? Furthermore, is it John C. Reilly & Steve Coogan making this look rehearsed, or is it supposed to be Laurel & Hardy, within this film-based-on-real-life? Was the luggage, too, part of it? Did they plan this, or do they just burst into comedy routines at every available opportunity? Are any of these jokes going to be jokes, or are they going to be jokes about and around other jokes? And why is this a different movie than the one I was just watching?
I spend time spelling out the alienating affect this opening 15 minutes has because it’s the standard space Stan & Ollie requires us to exist in. Even as the internal gags become less frequent, the movie has a fraught relationship with its own world. The score is bounding, sweet and old-fashioned; the tone, scene-to-scene, is absurd and dramatic and ridiculous and mocking and compassionate; the characters outside of the titular pair each have their own universe they seemed to have emerged from. There are so many different kinds of moments within the film – in terms of acting, coverage, design & writing – that many of them feel like they could be the basis of an entirely different movie, if taken in isolation.
If there is a constancy to the world of Stan & Ollie, it’s in the centrality of couples. There’s Stan & Ollie, but there’s also Ollie and his wife Lucile (Shirley Henderson), and Stan’s marriage to Ida (Nina Arianda), and Ida & Lucille’s relationship to each other. Then there are all the duos in the background: Abbot & Costello make their appearance on a poster to herald Laurel & Hardy’s waning relevance, a British comedy pair comes into the picture as the men approach London, and there’s talk of other partners Laurel & Hardy have each had in the past, both in comedy and in love. Almost every scene in the film is a two-hander: from the short cutaways to the long fights, no one exists in isolation, but circling around somebody else. The only exception is Rufus Jones, who plays the comedians’ tour manager and is the closest thing to an antagonist the film has – he exists mostly to cut into the middle of a couple’s conversations or literally to sit between them (Jones is either the provider or the punchline of the movie’s biggest laughs).
So it’s a movie about coupling, about people drifting together and coming apart, coming back and finding each other. And, indeed, the best parts throughout are the two-shots: John C. Reilly & Steve Coogan, in moments of companionship, or fracturing, or, yes, comedy. Their wives – who Arianda and Henderson fill with distinct, living people that the script doesn’t necessitate – together, watching their husbands or telling a joke of their own. The opening tracking sequence is a two-shot, as is the closing number. There are several places in which Baird finds ways to frame two people doing something that other films would not, and many of them are striking.
But the relationships that exists therein are mostly stale, and part of that is that 16 years is missing from our timeline. We learn, eventually, why Laurel & Hardy now have a tense rapport, but it takes far too long – by that time we’re already approaching the third act, getting ready for them to reconcile. Lucille & Ida each exist solely to be the best thing that ever happened to their respective husbands, and yet both men were introduced to us as a pair of womanizers who are now on their third marriage. There are many kinds of complex relationship here – working partnerships and romantic partnerships and partnerships born of necessity, all of which, at times, overlap – that are never dug into or built on, which is strange and slightly maddening in a movie about how two different people can come together to create something. That there’s a lack of interest in those nuances makes yet another joke about Laurel’s luggage hard to stomach.
And yet, by the end, there’s something there. It’s not a clear portrait of two men, or a story about changing times, or any kind of exploration of comedy or celebration of its history, but something much smaller. Toward the finale, a few of the disparate elements are finally brought together, as we’re allowed backstage, during a routine, to witness Stan & Ollie in their shared home: the act. The movie around Reilly & Coogan finally allows for something they’ve wanted to show us all along – a real kind of relationship, and a working one, built around a shared love. It’s said that Laurel, after Hardy’s death, kept writing Laurel & Hardy jokes for 7 years. Somehow, out of this messy and confused little film, we learn why.
Opening in New York & Los Angeles on December 28, 2018.