STAN AND OLLIE is a charmer, a critically acclaimed 2018 valentine to the long-gone comedy duo Laurel & Hardy. Sweet but not sticky, it’s blessed by truly remarkable performances from its leads and winning work from their supporting players.
The story starts in Hollywood in 1937, on the studio set of Way Out West. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), a team for a decade, are quite popular, but Stan feels it imperative to break from the stifling control of producer Hal Roach. Oliver, not as forthright, feels trapped contractually to stick it out. The resulting bitterness on Stan’s part, over what he considers betrayal, and Oliver’s, on what he feels has been a lopsided arrangement, surfaces 16 years later in 1953 when the duo, by now trying to rescue their flagging career, embark on an exhausting tour of music halls in England. Their agent is stalling them. Their long-suffering spouses arrive. Things come to a head.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, the witty and compassionate screenplay was written by Jeff Pope, who’d done a likewise marvelous collaborative job with Coogan on Philomena. Like most movie bios, it’s not strictly factual, but literal fact and dramatic truth are different coins of fluctuating value when the object is entertainment or emotional enlightenment as opposed to simple education. That some license is taken with timelines is a given, but matters not a whit, with the sort of acting caliber displayed here—Coogan and Reilly are so wonderfully convincing it’s like being in the room with the real people: truly brilliant work. At the time of the tour, Laurel & Hardy were, respectively, 63 and 61, game troupers to the last, but hardly spring chickens; both actors ever-so-minutely mirror their comfort with the routine of their routines and the gentle humor they share with each other, as well as their worry, tiredness and pain. The familiar (at least to those who recall watching them–a vanishing breed on their own) expressions and movements are mimicked to a fault yet without any sense of safe and soft impersonation—it looks–feels–genuine. When they hurt each other, you hurt for them.
Speaking of partners, more joy is delivered in the persons of Nina Arianda as Stan’s wife Ida, and Shirley Henderson as Oliver’s wife Lucille. The ladies bicker and joust with each other, but both are fiercely loyal to their locked-in-their-ways hubbies (Ida was Stan’s 4th and last wife, Lucille Ollie’s 3rd and final). Delicious interplay all round.
Costing $10,000,000, it grossed $26,300,000 (only $5,500,000 of that in the States, a lowly 151st place among all the year’s noisemakers). A clean and tidy yet warm and moving 97 minutes, with Rufus Jones (spot-on as quicksilver manager Bernard Delfont) and Danny Huston (as Hal Roach). Superb job from the makeup crew.