John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan shine in a Laurel & Hardy biopic that plays like a wonderful Laurel & Hardy movie.
This is an advance review. Stan & Ollie opens in limited release December 28.
It’s hard to articulate just how successful and famous comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were in their heyday. Together, Laurel & Hardy starred in over 100 films, many of them box office smashes. Their cartoonish personae and impish schtick, with the rotund Hardy constantly at the receiving end of the sticklike Laurel’s oblivious gags, fit in practically any situation. They were master comedians working at the top of their game.
But all stars must fall. Jon S. Baird’s new biopic Stan & Ollie finds the two legends at the end of their careers, still as funny as ever but struggling to find an audience now that comedy has moved on, and acts like Abbott & Costello rule the entertainment world. It sounds melancholy, and sometimes it is, but Baird has nothing but warmth in his heart for these two comedy maestros. The film is as funny and charming a Hollywood biopic as you’re ever likely to find.
Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel, who in 1953 has reteamed with Oliver Hardy, played by John C. Reilly, for a European comedy tour. Along the way they plan to rekindle their comedic skills after a failing out, involving excruciating contract negotiations and an ill-fated film with an elephant. They’re also trying to develop a new film called Rob ‘Em Good, a Robin Hood parody that they plan to shoot at the end of their run of live shows… if they make it that far.
Along the way, Laurel & Hardy struggle to find their old chemistry, keep old grudges simmering, and face the very real possibility that their careers are simply over, whether they like it or not. The show must always go on, but maybe – just maybe – it should go on without them.
Coogan and Reilly are absolute perfection as Laurel & Hardy, capturing all their iconic mannerisms without ever resorting to superficial imitation. Laurel & Hardy are consummate professionals, always ready to entertain, even in causal encounters. They just like making people laugh, and so they casually reenact some of their most famous routines in passing, on the street or in waiting rooms, just to get a rise out of the folks around them.
It’s a clever and entirely organic way to make this Laurel & Hardy biopic play just like a real Laurel & Hardy movie. Baird, working from a nuanced and witty screenplay by Jeff Pope, lets the audience jump back and forth from behind the curtain. We watch the show, and then we watch the messy emotional reality that went into making those classic routines work in the first place. And everything we learn just makes us love them more.
Stan & Ollie wisely uses the thin, almost imperceptible difference between the comedians’ lovable façades and their real, painful, personal squabbles to push the film forward. Stan Laurel is the businessman of the duo, the writer and director who’s always pushing the comedy act forward. Oliver Hardy keeps pace and makes his contributions but he’s more concerned with his life, his wife, and their relationship. At their lowest point, when Laurel desperately yells “I loved us!” to his best friend, Hardy replies “You loved Laurel & Hardy, but you never loved me.”
“So what?” Laurel replies, apparently seeing no difference at all. The silence in the room is deafening, and yet none of the partygoers in the background seem able to tell if the duo are actually fighting, or in the midst of just another “bit.”
Stan & Ollie is a film about people who lose themselves in their characters, but it’s also an impressively tender romance between these two men, as well as their wives. Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting) plays Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda (Goliath) plays Ida Laurel, whose personalities are just as diametrically opposed as their husbands’, and who seem to have developed their own comedy dyad. “You are the epitome of Hollywood,” Lucille tells Ida, an ex-dancer with an ego problem. “Don’t you pity me!” Ida yells back, getting as big a laugh as Coogan or Reilly ever do. Henderson and Arianda are scene-stealing delights in a movie about other characters who became famous for stealing scenes. (And if there’s justice in the world, every single one of them will be remembered come awards season.)