While not a comprehensive biopic, Stan and Ollie captures the essence of what made Laurel and Hardy so successful in their heyday. It’s breezy, funny, affable, wholesome, sincere, and endlessly charming.
Benefiting from a pair of superb performances in the title roles, the film functions best as an affectionate tribute to the legendary comedy duo that reminds us of their groundbreaking talent and legacy while hopefully introducing them to a new generation.
The film largely skips over the height of their fame — when they became cinematic stars with impeccable comic timing — and focuses on the early 1950s, when bumbling sidekick Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and his portly straight man, Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), have seen their fame decline. Their attempts to revive their slapstick routines for a new generation start on the stage, during a fledgling musical show touring throughout Great Britain and Ireland.
The modest success of their grassroots effort attracts a promoter (Rufus Jones) who might be able to set up a deal for Laurel’s proposed Robin Hood movie. Yet along the way, health issues and financial constraints test the pair’s loyalty to one another. The show must go on, even though their glory days are clearly behind them.
Coogan and Reilly deserve kudos for grasping their characters, both individually and collectively, in more than just speech and mannerisms. They convey an appropriate odd-couple chemistry that goes beyond physical stature and trademark derby hats.
Scottish director Jon Baird (Filth) evokes nostalgia through more than just sight gags and pratfalls. After setting the scene by opening with a lovely extended tracking shot on a bustling Hollywood backlot, the film also re-creates some delightful bits from the Laurel and Hardy catalog, most of which still hold up today.
The screenplay by Jeff Pope (Philomena) is less effective as a portrait of the Hollywood system at the time, when naïve nice-guy artists often were manipulated and shortchanged by bottom-line financiers. And it’s not always convincing when depicting the behind-the-scenes friction and petty jealousies that drove a wedge in the relationship.
The result is amusing but also bittersweet, showing that even the greatest performers can’t go on forever due in part to the fickle nature of audience tastes and industry trends. Fortunately, in the case of Laurel and Hardy, their work still endures.