In the twilight of their fading comedy careers, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) embark on a gruelling nostalgia tour of Britain and Ireland’s theatres. Out to prove they still have it, Laurel and Hardy must face their past differences, hidden resentments, and indifferent audiences to deliver a final great gag reel.
Laurel & Hardy are immediately synonymous with comedy – whether you’ve seen their sketches or not, they are two of the most famous funny men of all time. But all fame dulls with time, and the duo we encounter in their 1953 theatre tour of post-war Britain and Ireland are stars on the verge of blinking out of existence. Following this latter period of the pair’s careers is an interesting choice. Dim dance halls and seaside resorts lack the razzle-dazzle energy of the film’s opening segment, following the stars at their peak through a Golden Age Hollywood filmset. But focusing on their final career leg was a masterstroke from scriptwriter Jeff Pope and director Jon S. Baird. Far from the noise and excitement of their heyday, we get to dive under the surface of the comic pair’s lengthy and complex relationship, infusing Stan & Ollie with a spirit devoid in many biopics.
Poorly reviewed biographical movies tend to go one of two ways – either they gloss over the nitty-gritty negatives too flippantly, or don’t capture the spirit of their subject. Stan & Ollie certainly doesn’t suffer from those issues. Pope crafts a story focused on the pair at their most vulnerable, their relationship tentative from separation and career uncertainty. The story hits all the right emotional beats and mixes poignant moments with light-hearted fun. For a movie about a comedy duo, the film isn’t very funny. But this just better feeds our appreciation of Laurel & Hardy being real people with real problems behind the gags. Baird also does an excellent job behind the camera in capturing the duo’s struggles. Self-doubt and unspoken resentment are written all over the actions of Laurel & Hardy in tight close-ups and intimate, minimalist scenes. For the most part, however, Baird is restrained with his camerawork, letting the immense performances of Coogan and Reilly entrance the viewer.
The performances of the lead actors are towering. Very rarely have I seen actors so totally capture the essence of a fellow performer (Rami Malek’s Oscar nod was interesting given the equal calibre of the showings here). A lot more has been made of Coogan’s Laurel. He captures the mannerisms down to a tee, as well as the workaholism driving the pair to exhaustion. Less has been made of Reilly’s staggeringly accurate Hardy. An alleged four-hours daily in the makeup chair transformed Reilly physically – but the true Hardy lies in Reilly’s weary performance. He perfectly embodies a man struggling to keep up with past habits and his demanding comic partner, his body no longer able to meet the rigours of fame. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson offer their own excellent double act as the pair’s long-suffering wives Ida and Lucille. Dishing out barely concealed venom and genuine care equally to one another, the actresses nearly outperform Coogan and Reilly scene-on-scene. The acting is a highlight across the board.
There is a lot to like about Stan & Ollie – it’s an unpretentious, wholesome look at the drive and dynamics behind comedy’s early stars. We’re drawn in every minute, onstage and off, by what the pair will do next, even though we’ve seen it (and they’ve done it) all before.
Stan & Ollie delivers an unpresuming and personal take on the complex, bittersweet relationship behind the comedy duo’s onstage chemistry. 7.5/10.