Maybe John C. Reilly has been too busy to do the lower-tier types of promotion for Stan & Ollie, as he has not appeared on any of the several movie-related podcasts I listen to. Steve Coogan has, though. I heard at least two podcast interviews with him in the past two months, talking about this movie, making me wonder when the hell it will open locally in Seattle, or if maybe it came and went and I somehow missed it. To be fair, one of those podcasts was WTF with Marc Maron, which John C. Reilly had already been interviewed on, about two and a half years ago. And — oh, look: Reilly has also been on NPR’s Fresh Air himself, just last month. But that counts more as a radio show, yes?
I do have a point here, which has two angles. First, the promotion of Stan & Ollie has seemed appropriately old-school, for a movie about Hollywood comic superstars who had been at the peak of their careers in 1937 — 82 years ago. The most widely consumed promotional appearances at that time, no doubt, would also have been on the radio. Now, podcasts are the 21st-century’s answer to radio, essentially free radio on demand, and for the first time, I literally went to a movie solely because of a guest on podcasts supporting this project.
Curiously, I had never once seen a movie trailer for this film, and I go to the movies usually multiple times a week. Who’s behind the promotion of this movie, anyway? Do they even know what they’re doing? I might not even have known this movie existed but for podcasts, or maybe just checking to see what was playing at local theaters.
It usually doesn’t bode all that well for a movie to get a February release date, as it happens. And to be honest, as sweet at Stan & Ollie is — it’s not bad — it still seems fitting. This movie focuses on the waning, later years of Laurel & Hardy’s careers. As in, when their biggest fans were themselves getting on in age. And that was in 1953. How many twentysomethings alive today even know who these guys are?
And therein lies the challenge: sure, it’s possible to make a great movie that resonates with younger audiences even if it’s about largely forgotten movie stars. It’s all in the telling. The very slight issue here is that Stan & Ollie is presented as though made for those audiences that were getting older. In the fifties.
That said, the performances are fantastic, and arguably alone worth watching the movie. John C. Reilly dons a lot of prosthetics to become Oliver Hardy, only recognizable if you look for him in the eyes, and listen to his relatively distinctive voice. Steve Coogan, a consummate character actor, fades more easily into the role of Stan Laurel, although being a native Brit, his attempt at an American accent comes in and out at points.
Ultimately, Stan & Ollie is a sweet testament to enduring friendship, a tale of these two men attempting to keep things going even after resentments about career moves made sixteen years prior, when they were at the peak of their career, in 1937. Director Jon S. Baird, however, can’t seem to move the action far beyond inert. There’s a great scene that commands attention a little more than halfway through the film, in which the two nearly come to blows at a reception, and for a moment I got a little excited that, well, things would actually get exciting. The potential fizzles.
Most of the rest of the time, Stan & Ollie is filled with nostalgic warm fuzzies, and is not interested in much beyond that. It becomes the kind of biopic that will understandably remain of interest to audiences who are already fans of the real people the characters are based on, but I struggle to imagine anyone with only a cursory familiarity with them finding this story all that compelling. It’s a competently told, very well-acted biopic that is pleasantly meandering at best, and listless at times.