4 out of 5 stars.
Laurel and Hardy. Even those who haven’t seen their films likely at least know the names, and recognize their appearance: the tall and thin Stan Laurel, and the portly and mustached Oliver Hardy, bowler hats in hand. The comedy duo attained popularity with their short and feature length films for Hal Roach in the 1930s, but have reached iconic status since then for their brand of slapstick comedy. But less people are likely aware of their later years, which the new film “Stan and Ollie” uses as a way to examine the pair’s relationship.
The film opens in 1937 with a splendid tracking shot of Stan (Steve Coogan) and Oliver (John C. Reilly) walking through the Hal Roach Studios from their dressing room to the set of their film “Way Out West.” It’s here that we are presented with one of the film’s primary sources of conflict: Stan’s contract at the studio is almost up, and he doesn’t believe the pair are being paid a salary to match their popularity. He wants to renegotiate his contract, while Ollie doesn’t want to do anything just yet—after all, he has more time left on this contract. The bitterness from their resulting split still lingers 16 years later, when Stan and Ollie reunite to go on a music hall tour of the United Kingdom while trying to get another film made.
“Stan and Ollie,” which is directed by Jon S. Baird, does what most biopics do and drums up conflict where in reality there was none to punch up the story. But here, the conflict between Stan and Ollie is used not so much to create unnecessary drama, but rather as a way in to exploring the depth of their friendship. This film, after all, isn’t about their careers, even though that does play a big part in it. While the boys’ UK tour doesn’t start off well, with the duo playing in sketchy, near-empty music halls, after they do a bit of publicity they begin selling out huge theaters, and the public eats up everything they do. Their grueling schedule takes a toll on Ollie’s already struggling health, while conversations with their wives drum up tension that causes them to question whether their friendship was ever really real. It’s the heart of the duo’s relationship that Baird tries to get at here, and he does so beautifully. Stan and Ollie complement each other so perfectly, not only onstage but offstage as well, and for all their bantering it’s the quiet moments where they are just sitting together holding hands that carry the most sincerity. The film also has a wonderful nostalgic look and feel about it; even real life locations maintain the air of a colorful old Hollywood movie set.
The bulk of the film’s success, however, is due to Coogan and Reilly. Their performances are so spot-on without ever turning into a parody. Everything, from their voices to their mannerisms, mirror their real life counterparts. Their slapstick comedy skills are admirable in the scenes where they replicate the duo’s comedy acts, but they really imbue so much heart and soul into the portrayal of their characters when they aren’t working. The supporting cast deserves praise as well, especially Nina Arianda, who plays Stan’s smart-mouth wife Ida. She frequently steals scenes from even Coogan and Reilly, and her banter with them as well as with Shirley Henderson, who plays Ollie’s wife Lucille, is one of the highlights of the movie. Danny Huston also appears briefly in the film as producer Hal Roach, while Rufus Jones is delightfully despicable as Bernard Delfont, the agent in charge of the UK tour.
Laurel and Hardy may not be household names today in the same way that they were in the 1930s. But their work is truly timeless. One of the joys of “Stan and Ollie” is that there are several sequences in which we get to witness some of the duo’s routines in their entirety, from their dance in “Way Out West” to a hilarious double door gag. And while there’s no substitute for watching actual Laurel and Hardy films, it’s wonderful to see a theatre full of people laughing out loud at the simple hilarity of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy in 2019. Is it overly sentimental? Absolutely. But “Stan and Ollie” remains a lovely tribute to the pair’s enduring legacy.
Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated PG.