Stan & Ollie skates by on charming nostalgia and good cheer more than it does true hallmarks of quality filmmaking. But this biopic nevertheless hits a sweet spot of introspection and intimacy suggested by its title — which takes the first names of Laurel and Hardy, a classic Hollywood slapstick double act whom a studio manufactured but who also found true kinship in their time together.
Shrewd casting is also a plus. It’s not only that Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Oliver Hardy) have already established seriocomic bona fides in their previous films. They also understand the real-life comforts and compromises inherent to any creative collaborations (Coogan with Rob Brydon, Reilly with Will Ferrell), and the idea that sometimes the most skilled pairs can mask interpersonal conflict through what, to their audiences, seems like a bit — the line between routine and rancor gone thin. And while Stan & Ollie wisely never turns into some sort of grimdark, hard-assed look at the “real” Laurel and Hardy, Jeff Pope’s screenplay also acknowledges the Sisyphean struggle, particularly for slapstick comedians, to stay ahead of audiences’ advancing sophistications.
The film opens in Laurel and Hardy’s 1937 heyday — the height of their popularity in films produced by Hal Roach (Danny Huston, sleepwalking through one blowhard scene). Wandering eyes and gambling problems threaten their success, but they’re still riding high. But then Laurel threatens Roach with a contract holdout and the worm starts to turn.
Jumping ahead to 1953, Stan & Ollie largely chronicles the duo’s last-ditch live tour of the United Kingdom. It’s an attempt to raise their visibility ahead of a planned Robin Hood spoof called Rob ’em Good — a reminder to the public that Laurel & Hardy still matter in an Abbott & Costello world.
The venues are small, as are the crowds, but Stan & Ollie doesn’t descend into standard debasement or lamentation. We see Laurel and Hardy struggle but also adjust to additional promotional opportunities in hopes of regaining their audience’s adoration. The film shows them finding new gears of whimsy to infuse into a wearier, post-World War II world. As the tour’s fortunes soon pick up, prospects for the new film strain, Hardy’s health worsens and the inseparable twosome must soon contemplate life alone. There’s a nice scene where they utter the word “retiring” and let it linger in the air uncomfortably … before Laurel takes the cue to pop that 500-pound balloon and workshop some new material.
The showcase makeup is clearly reserved for Reilly, endowed with thick latex and fat suits as the more corpulent comedian. At times, it entombs the actor’s reliably hangdog hallmarks, but Reilly nevertheless achieves a balance of peace and peevishness. While the work on Coogan is more subtle, the actor’s eyes seem somehow transformed — alternately widened in vaudevillian wonder and then in disbelief and despondence. Not only do we get plenty of moments where they graciously indulge the public’s insistence that they always be the jesters, we see how their wives (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) have formed their own rapport, sometimes weary and antagonistic but no less fortified.
In all, Stan & Ollie is an agreeable, amiable period piece — its era finely rendered, dotted with just enough slapstick, the pleasantries neither too pushy nor too lazy. It’s the story of two people who ascended to fame on someone else’s terms trying to chart a descent on their own conditions and how, sometimes, from-nothing-something laughter can sustain us in sour times.