Movie Review: Stan (2006)
by Alan F. Zundel
There is a sub-genre of the biopic that could be called “The Tears of a Clown.” In these TV and movie dramas the personal lives of famous comedians are mined for the tragic. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello, Martin and Lewis—all have been subjected to this voyeuristic scrutiny.
Unless you’re inclined toward the maudlin, watching this stuff can be a dreary experience. We love these clowns because they are in a special class of funny, and it feels disrespectful to try to imitate their inimitability while yanking their carefully constructed comic personas back down to mundane reality.
On a rare occasion, like Robert Downey, Jr., in “Chaplin” or Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” a performer walks the high wire successfully by bringing their own strengths to the role. More often the result feels awkward, neither fish nor fowl, unfunny and unmoving.
“Stan,” a 2006 production by the British Broadcasting Corporation, stands somewhere in the middle of the pack. The Stan of the title refers, of course, to Stan Laurel, the British music hall comedian who went on to everlasting movie fame when partnered with Oliver Hardy. Adapted from his own radio play by Neil Brand, it recreates the final meeting of the pair at Hardy’s deathbed.
As far as classic comedy goes—and I consider myself a connoisseur—Laurel and Hardy are at the top of the list, just behind Chaplin and Keaton. Truth be told, although I admire the comic chops of the latter two, I enjoy Laurel and Hardy more. Their movies are sometimes sub-par (their performances almost never are), yet Laurel and Hardy have some kind of extra magic that makes them seem like dear personal friends of yours.
I have a special affection for Laurel, who was the guiding force in the act. As a youth I wanted to write him for advice in pursuing a comedy career, but alas, he died when I was 12. Later I was in a short-lived comedy partnership as the skinny guy with a rotund friend, and inevitably I found myself stealing bits from memories of Laurel and Hardy.
All this is to make the point that I would not give a movie about Stan an easy pass. And I will say that “Stan” is pretty good.
It probably helps that it’s only an hour long, just enough to pay homage to the two without wearing out its welcome. Sandwiched between scenes of Laurel visiting Hardy at his sickbed are Stan’s memories of their career together, from their reluctant pairing up until their final days on a movie set. The memories help flesh out the relationship for viewers who aren’t familiar with them (I pity you!), and keep the scenes set in the present (well, the present of 1957) from becoming claustrophobic.
Jim Norton and Trevor Cooper play Laurel and Hardy in their twilight years. Norton handles the bulk of the acting, as Cooper’s Hardy has been disabled by a stroke and can’t speak. Both look and, in Norton’s case, sound enough like the real Laurel and Hardy to be convincing, and their nuanced performances bring their scenes to life. I was impressed at how well they pulled it off.
Nik Howden and Mike Goodenough tackle Laurel and Hardy in the early years. They too have the right look and sound as the partners, or close enough anyway, although saddled with the impossible task of recreating comic scenes from a couple of their silent films. Those scenes were not Laurel and Hardy’s best work (in one they hadn’t been partnered yet), but the recreations are not funny at all.
However, the function of the scenes of their earlier years is not humor, it is background. On that score the script hits the necessary marks in their career together without trying to milk their personal hardships too heavily. For this Howden and Goodenough are more than, well, good enough.
The weakest link is the writing. The radio show was adapted into a live play before becoming a screenplay, and it has the feel of a one-act stage production, systematically building toward a resolution of dramatic tensions. The dialogue becomes stilted at times by explaining stuff to the audience, such as in a scene where the young Laurel and Hardy discuss the comic appeal of their movie characters.
But it all goes by quickly enough that an occasional awkward piece of dialogue doesn’t trip things up, and the unanticipated pleasure at seeing the actors do a respectable job handling these iconic characters makes up for any deficiencies. TV director Jon Sen keeps things zipping along and avoids the swamps of weepy territory, settling wisely for just a little teariness.
Rather than dwelling on raw dramatics, the focus instead is on the growth of the personal and professional reliance Laurel and Hardy had on each other. Marital and career problems take a back seat to that rare thing in show biz, a real friendship. In the end we are left not with a sob, but with a laugh and a smile. I’m certain Stan would approve of that.