My memories of Laurel and Hardy are warm but foggy. In my childhood, I’d burst into fits of giggles watching these hilarious stars of early Hollywood in all their slapstick splendor. These classic gags and the joy they inspired are resurrected with Stan & Ollie, a celebratory biopic that explores this classic comedy duo’s behind-the-scenes dynamic during a fateful theater tour.
The film begins with an elaborate and impressive long take. It’s a walk-and-talk during which Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) stroll through the studio lot, greeting crewmembers, placing bets on horse races, and discussing Stan’s upcoming contract negotiation, as they arrive at the set of 1937’s Way Out West. Tensions brew as Stan argues with producer/director Hal Roach (Danny Huston), but once the camera is rolling, this double-act delivers comedy gold with a jaunty dance number that’s enchantingly silly. With signature scalp scratches and twiddling ties, Coogan and Reilly embody the quirks and charms of Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen magic with astonishing accuracy. Throughout the film, they’re given the opportunity to re-enact the pair’s most iconic bits (like “County Hospital”) and do so with buoyant aplomb. However, the focus of this film is not their heyday but the decline that came nearly 20 years later.
Abruptly, the film leaps to 1953, when Laurel and Hardy were desperate to mount another picture. To elicit interest in a proposed Robin Hood romp, they went on a theater tour through Ireland and the United Kingdom, appearing at any dinky theater or cramped hall that’d have them. In the film, Stan and Oliver try to keep their spirits up by performing beloved bits for an unsuspecting hostess and writing new jokes as they travel by train. But hanging heavy over their fun is the possibility that this may be their last hurrah. Oliver’s waning health makes some bits dangerous to perform, long-held resentments bubble beneath the friendly surface, and the brewing fear that they’ve become has-beens causes tension. Director Jon S. Baird swaddles the film in a soothing sentimentality that keeps things from growing outright unpleasant. This is a feel-good biopic after all.
Reilly captures the churlish charm of Hardy’s onscreen persona but portrays off-stage Oliver as a happy-go-lucky bon vivant, whose appetite for life found outlets through gambling, feasting, and romance. Coogan deftly embodies Laurel’s daffy and dopey persona. Then reveals Stan to be a sharp wit and stymied genius. While the stars poignantly deliver the emotions of this tricky tour, Jeff Pope’s script denies its audience some crucial context. Watching the pair bicker over a 16-year-old argument, I wanted to know what happened after that pivotal negotiation to understand why its betrayal still stung so intensely. The film makes it clear that Stan is angry, but what’s left out is that Laurel was an actor/writer/director before he teamed with Hardy. So his desire for greater creative control of the work to which he’d dedicated his life was more than vanity or rivalry. The film also implies that the pair haven’t made a movie in ages, but that’s a blatant misrepresentation that ignores a slew of ’40s films.
Stan & Ollie is less concerned with context and facts than it is the emotional core of its tale. That is vibrantly painted, not only by Coogan and Reilly but also by undersung character actresses Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, who play the pair’s wives. Henderson (who may be best known from Bridget Jones’s Diary or as Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle) brings a prim grace and a sharp eye to Lucille Hardy, who clearly sees herself as the advocate her big-hearted husband needs. She has little patience for the pair’s public shenanigans, being far more concerned that her unwell husband is taking his pills and being kind to his bad knee. But Russian actress Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Arianda of Florence Foster Jenkins) is no such wilting flower. She shines for prying cameras, is quick to drop names and toot her own horn. She respects her husband’s finely crafted foolishness, but she will not suffer fools. Brusquely brushing past a shady manager, rolling her eyes at fawning fans, and snatching shot glasses away from her sober husband, she is a force to be reckoned with. Actually, that last bit is the only thing these two women have in common, which makes them a mesmerizing pair of uneasy allies. Honestly, I’d watch a sequel that’s just an imagined road trip with Lucille and Ida, but I’d gladly take more of Arianda and Henderson in any team-up they choose.
All in all, Stan & Ollie is a charming tribute to Laurel and Hardy. Coogan and Reilly give their all to do right by these kings of comedy, and in doing so prove the timeless appeal of this brilliant double-act. They also give us a peek at the men behind the laughs, aided by stellar supporting turns from Arianda and Henderson. It’s just a shame the film takes for granted that its audience will be able to fill in the gaps its script leaves wide and yawning.