Film Review: Stan & Ollie

Engaging, affectionate portrait of a legendary comedy team at the twilight of their careers.
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For film fans of a certain age (this writer included), there is a select group of movie stars who seem larger than life, iconic and eternal: Chaplin, Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Bogart, Dean, Monroe. And surely that special fraternity includes Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, comedy geniuses whose contrasting physical presences made them seem like caricatures made flesh. Sadly, many of the names I’ve mentioned don’t mean all that much to younger generations—and the theme of ebbing fame is part of what makes Stan & Ollie, the new film about Laurel and Hardy at the sunset of their lives, so poignantly effective. The other part: the uncanny performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles.

We first meet the superstars in 1937 in a marvelous single take, walking from their dressing room across the Hal Roach Studio to the set of their latest feature Way Out West, where they’re about to perform what would become their most beloved dance routine. The film then segues to 1953, and a much older Laurel and Hardy arriving in Great Britain to embark on a stage-show tour intended to ignite interest in a comeback movie, a comic take on Robin Hood. Their accommodations are not exactly first-class and the venues promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) has booked them into are second-tier—what a comedown for the once universally adored pair.

Stan and Oliver swallow their pride and agree to humble themselves with a series of publicity stunts, which bear fruit in bigger audiences and increasingly larger auditoriums. But, alas, Stan has been deceived about the Robin Hood film; their return to movie glory is not to be.

Periodically, Jeff Pope’s screenplay circles back to the circumstances it claims began their decline—namely, Laurel’s insistence that his boss Hal Roach pay them what they deserve, and Hardy’s reluctance to break his contract and willingness to appear with a new partner, Harry Langdon, in the 1939 comedy Zenobia. Laurel and Hardy soon reunited for a dozen more films, but Pope’s script positions that “betrayal” by Hardy as a sore point during the tour that leads to heightened friction, until Hardy falls ill.

Though Laurel is acknowledged to be the brains of the operation (Hardy would often be out golfing or gambling while Laurel sweated over their routines), the chemistry and timing Hardy brought to their partnership was indispensable. They may not have socialized much off-screen, but what they created together formed the basis of a durable bond.

That sometimes-prickly but symbiotic partnership comes through strong as embodied by the remarkable Coogan and Reilly. Abetted by makeup supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and prosthetics designer Mark Coulier (The Iron Lady), the two actors have meticulously captured the duo’s mannerisms and voices and are a delight in their stage performance scenes; often, you’ll forget you’re not watching L&H themselves.

There’s an equally entertaining duo in the film: Nina Arianda as Laurel’s imperious, opinionated Russian wife Ida and Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s petite, quieter but no less formidable spouse Lucille. These two very talented actors enliven the movie with their witty sparring over who deserves more credit for their husbands’ success and blame for their struggle.

Directed by Jon S. Baird (Filth, Channel 4’s “Babylon”), Stan & Ollie boasts a lively pace and handsome production values. And above all, it’s made with obvious affection for two legends of comedy modern audiences should make an effort to know.