By the early 1950s, famous comedy duo Stanley Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were looking to revitalize their careers by way of a Robin Hood motion picture that Laurel had written. In order to both help secure funding for the prospective project and prove that there was still a viable audience for their comedy, the pair embarked on a tour across Europe that saw them reuniting for the first time in ages. Why had they split off? Well, that’s in the past now, though over the course of their extended trip across Europe, turmoil from years gone by just might resurface as they come to terms with what the future might hold for each of them.
Stan & Ollie is a lovely surprise, like getting extra sprinkles on a sundae or stumbling on a Janelle Monae song on the radio. It’s a movie that’s got a full heart and isn’t afraid to show it off in an affectionate matter that manages to avoid feeling like unearned gooey sentimentality. Instead, the pathos here feels like a properly earned way to build off of both legacies of the real-world performers its based on as well as the events of the story itself. Plus, many of the best heartfelt moments are surprisingly quiet in nature, like a scene showing Laurel sitting with a sickly Hardy in the latter’s bed and trying to calmly comfort his friend shortly after the duo had a big argument.
The camera is kept a good deal of distance from the pair who are placed in the middle of the frame so that we can get a sense of them being outsized by the world around them that’s constantly steamrolling them both through struggles like Hardy’s health issues or Laurel’s difficulties in getting his projects off the ground. When the anguish of these characters are so well-realized both in terms of camerawork and the script, moments like these showing them finding small moments of comfort in each other’s company feel extremely emotionally resonant. It may sound like something simple to pull in the context of my descriptions in this review, but this is an element that so many movies stumble in executing properly, something like Green Book, for instance, just wants to rush into tugging on the heartstrings without giving the viewer’s heart a reason to care in the first place!
Meanwhile, Stan & Ollie builds up to its key emotional moments by satisfyingly building up both the titular lead characters friendship and their individual personalities. In another one of the brilliant moves on the part of Jeff Pope’s script, this features versions of Laurel & Hardy are interesting characters in their own right, it’s not just the sight of seeing two well-known characters putting on costumes to imitate well-known comedians that make them compelling. Instead, the realistically well-worn dynamic between the two of them that suggest years of history grabs one’s attention as we explore the differing woes Laurel & Hardy are now dealing with at the dawn of the 1950s.
Of course, the two lead performances do contribute heavily to why this motion picture’s version of these real-world comedians are so fascinating. Steve Coogan, a dead-ringer for the actual Stanley Laurel, has been a riot in the past playing egocentric individuals like his villain in The Other Guys, so it’s interesting to see him deliver a performance in Stan & Ollie that feels truly unlike anything else I’ve seen him do in his career. As Stanley Laurel, he brings a fascinating quiet warmth to his performance that lends some welcome nuance to a character that could have come off as a stereotypical stuffy intellectual writer. In addition to delivering his own subtly complex performance, Coogan’s work as an actor here makes for a great contrast with John C. Reilly’s intentionally outsized turn as the affable Ollie. Reilly gets to work extensive makeup to portray this real-life comedian and it’s a credit to Reilly the thought of him performing in make-up vanishes from a viewers mind shortly into the movie, instead, one just becomes immersed in his character and his friendship with Stanley Laurel.
Simply put, Coogan and Reilly are outstanding in their lead performances here, and though it’s most important that their work here succeeds on its own merits, it does merit mentioning that they also work incredibly well as imitations of the actual Laurel & Hardy. Scenes where they perform old Laurel & Hardy routines see Coogan & Reilly getting down the comedic rhythms of this iconic duo down marvelously. A lot of this comes down to how Coogan & Reilly have the same kind of natural entertaining chemistry that Laurel & Hardy had back in the day, the pair just play off other beautifully when they’re portraying these two characters performing comedic shenanigans on-stage. Come to think of it, this kind of effortlessly engrossing comedic chemistry likely also helps make their emotional scenes together so engaging since the comedic scenes help sell the long-standing friendship these two share.
Also excelling in the cast are the performers portraying the significant others of the two leads, Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson. These two are a riot in their interactions with each other, with Arianda especially getting some of the most amusing line readings of the whole movie that lean heavily on her characters overtly confident demeanor. The cast is working under the direction of Jon S. Baird, who delivers more uplifting filmmaking here compared to his last directorial effort, the James McAvoy vehicle Filth. Aside from an occasionally generic score by Rolfe Kent and some clumsy pieces of editing, his Stan & Ollie movie turns out to be a keeper, it’s the sort of uplifting entertainment that’s so subtly well-made that one can’t help but fall head over heels for it!