In the States it seems like “Stan & Ollie” came and went with barely a peep. Yes John C. Reilly earned a Golden Globe nomination and the film received a warm reception from critics, but otherwise it’s a film that got no real attention. I don’t remember it hitting any theater around me and the promotion for the movie seemed nonexistent. It’s unfortunate because “Stan & Ollie” is a solid biopic minus most of the usual trappings.
I’ve have an enormous affection for Laurel & Hardy going back to my childhood. PBS was instrumental in introducing me to and developing my love for the classic comics from the silent era (Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin) as well as Hal Roach’s biggest acts, Our Gang and of course Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. To this day I adore all of these great comedians, but there was and is something special about Laurel and Hardy. I’ve seen most of their ‘talkie’ shorts and can quote many of them. I’ve watched their feature films like “Way out West”, “Sons of the Desert”, and “The Flying Deuces” countless times. So natural “Stan & Ollie” had an immediate appeal.
The film comes from director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope. But the biggest draws are the two stars and their stunning likenesses to their characters (Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy). Everything rings true – their distinct voices, comic mannerisms, even individual details from Oliver’s signature toothbrush mustache to Stanley’s wry smile. Most importantly, neither Coogan or Reilly are simply relying on impersonations. Their performances dig into both the personal and performance sides of Stan and Oliver.
The bulk of the film is set in 1953 during the comedy duo’s final appearances as an act. The two embark on an arduous stage tour across England and Ireland while struggling to find funding for their next movie. The tour starts in rinky-dink theaters with small crowds thanks to shoddy promotion from their British producer Bernard Delfront (Rufus Jones). But after adding more public appearances to their already intense schedule, they begin grabbing bigger crowds and booking larger venues.
The boys are joined by their wives in London where the duo is booked for a two-week engagement at the Lyceum Theatre. But soon old wounds from the the past begin festering, specifically about their brief split several years earlier (seen in a prologue). Pent-up bitterness and resentment threaten to not only end a beloved comedy team but a longstanding friendship as well.
The film is driven by its warm and endearing central relationship. There is a tender, organic chemistry between Coogan and Reilly that fits well with Stan and Ollie’s easy-going camaraderie. An unexpected spark comes with the appearance of their wives, Oliver’s anxious and concerned Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Stan’s Russian-born fireball Ida (Nina Arianda). Both add a bit of zest at a time when the movie really needs it.
But I can’t overstate just how terrific the stage performance scenes are. With an almost eerie similitude, the film captures some of Laurel and Hardy’s greatest bits. Take the stage recreation of their classic short “County Hospital”. From the pinpoint line readings to the smallest gesture, you swear you’re seeing the real thing.
I’m not sure if any movie biopic has captured its subject(s) as authentically as “Stan & Ollie”. Fans of the pair will find the similarities uncanny. But what makes the movie is their ability to go beyond appearances and mix physical authenticity with genuine humanity. Best of all it captures what fans like myself love about Laurel and Hardy while giving us a behind the scenes glance at their enduring friendship.
VERDICT – 4 STARS