When comedy duos work, the result is pure magic. From Abbott & Costello to Cheech & Chong to Key & Peele, there’s a long history of hilarity coming from the melding of two talented individuals. One of the early duos to show their skills on screen was Laurel & Hardy, whose relationship is documented in the film, Stan & Ollie.
However, save for a brief part at the beginning and one flashback, the film doesn’t go into the big period of success for Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), which ran from 1927 to 1937 and included an insane number of short and feature films. Instead, it catches them at the tail end of their careers, when they embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1953, putting on a nostalgic stage show that was meant to drum up interest in them making a new film.
The two are reliably chummy and perhaps a bit too agreeable with tour promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), who asks more of them than they thought. But with the movie goal in mind and unflagging support from their respective wives, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson), they take the stage night after night, putting on the type of show that only they could.
Directed by Jon C. Baird and written by Jeff Pope, the film is an insightful look at what drives performers when they’re past their prime. Entertaining people is all Laurel & Hardy have ever known, so when they’re in public but not on stage, they’re still “on,” trying to make people laugh even when they don’t have to. This extends to moments not meant to be funny, such as when they get into an argument at a party. Their characters’ rivalry had become so ingrained over the years that the partygoers assume it’s all a bit even when it’s not.
Still, the film does a great job of delving into the two actors’ personal relationship, as well as the bond they have with their wives. In an unexpected storytelling twist, the humor of Laurel & Hardy sometimes plays second fiddle to the funny situations that crop up between the wives. Stan and Ollie are the funny ones in the context of the story, but for the audience of this film, Ida and Lucille are their equals in their limited time together.
The only big qualm with the movie is that it heavily implies that Laurel and Hardy stopped working together in 1937 before reuniting for the tour in 1953. In fact, the duo made movies throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, though not at the breakneck pace that they did during their heyday.
Both Coogan and Reilly deserve all the praise they can get for their performances, though sadly that won’t be at the Oscars as neither was nominated. Coogan, a master impressionist, embodies Laurel in both voice and mannerisms, but his performance goes much deeper than mere imitation. Reilly is aided by great makeup and a body suit, but he plays Hardy with true soul instead of just being a clown.
Stan & Ollie is a sweet, well-done tribute to a comedy duo that influenced way more performers than you might think. With four great performances and an easy-to-swallow narrative, you’ll be whistling “Dance of the Cuckoos” long after you leave the theater.