Neither a comedy nor a full-fledged biography, “Stan & Ollie” is a loving ode, a tip of the bowler hat, to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the legendary team that made it unscathed from silent films to talkies, and shorts to features in an internationally renowned career that lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s.
With such a wide time span of their films making people laugh, this project could have gone in many directions. But it’s very focused. It doesn’t go into who they were before they were a team - before producer Hal Roach noticed them in his stable of actors and got the idea to pair them up - nor does it show how they developed their act and personas.
The storyline sticks with two periods - 1937 when they were filming the feature “Way out West” and 1953 when they attempted to revive their flagging career by going on a stage tour of Great Britain. The idea of the film is to show them, not as the characters of Laurel and Hardy, but as the two men who played those characters. It’s a story of their relationship - how it was in the early days, what went wrong, and how they both tried to reconnect with the close friendship, the love, that was always there.
Accolades go to John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan in the title roles. Not just because of the amazing makeup and prosthetic work that’s been applied to them, and not even because these two longtime Laurel & Hardy fans got both the voices and the mannerisms down to a tee (Coogan fans already know that he has a gift for mimicry). It’s that both actors got inside the men they were portraying, reaching the heart and soul of them. Reilly’s performance is a tad more layered, and he really lets his eyes do the talking for him. That’s best seen in the wonderful sequences when Stan, always coming up with new comedy bits and trying them out on Ollie, gets him to quietly erupt in laughter. Nothing is to be taken away from Coogan. In a scene where he gets some bad news from a film producer, the camera is trained on his expressive face and, wordlessly, he conveys a combination of disappointment and desperation.
But the film also has plenty of funny moments. The shows on their British tour consist of bits from their films - one from “County Hospital,” involving a broken leg and hard-boiled eggs is there - that are recreated for the loving audiences who remember them from the team’s heyday. A nice touch is that screenwriter Jeff Pope has also come up with new routines of the sort that Stan and Ollie might have done. The best is a hilarious double door bit that shows off the timing the two men had down pat. Pope tops that when, later in the film, a scene takes place “behind the curtain,” revealing how the two men pulled off the intricacies required for it.
There’s also some movie magic in the film. It opens with a four-minute tracking shot of Reilly and Coogan walking through a studio back lot (it’s actually three shots seamlessly blended together) that ends up with them performing their dazzling little dance from “Way Out West.” And shortly afterward, the storytelling begins. We hear of their multiple divorces - though in the 1953 scenes the women they’re married to, played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, are the main strengths in the lives. There are money hassles with their boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston) that lead to a rift between Stan and Ollie, and the trip to England isn’t just to do shows but also to find out about an upcoming remake of “Robin Hood” that they’re scheduled to make.
Laurel & Hardy fans will already know the fate of that film, but even they probably don’t know what went on between the two men during that period of time, as not much has ever been told of it. The ending is bittersweet, and a few tears will likely be shed by some viewers. But everyone should be fine when in the midst of the end credits, they get to see actual footage of Stan and Ollie doing their little dance.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Stan & Ollie”
Written by Jeff Pope; directed by Jon. S Baird
With John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston