Laurel and Hardy were such a unique comedy duo that it would be difficult for actors to imitate them without becoming caricatures. Their expert routines evoked world-wide laughter, and a note I once received from Woody Allen remarked that someday we might discuss who was funnier, Laurel or Hardy. We never had that talk but whenever I have seen one of their vintage comedies I have pondered the question without any definitive conclusion. Each was hilarious in his own way, and together they were remarkable.
I am happy to report that Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy resemble close to the real thing in capturing the pair’s comedy without looking like caricatures. But this film directed by Jon S. Baird and scripted by Jeff Pope, achieves more than that as it delves into the off-screen relationship between the two. It is a story of ups and downs, affection and irritation, but ultimately a reaffirmation of the emotional closeness that defined their bonding through life and work. (Hardy died in 1957, Laurel in 1965.)
Reilly’s performance, abetted by make-up and costuming to achieve Hardy’s portly figure, is the more amazing of the two. But Coogan is subtly superb as well, nailing the Laurel nuances and indicating the underlying dissatisfaction of not getting sufficient recognition for his genius in scripting the situations leading to the hilarity.
The film also gets an amusing boost from the versatile Nina Arianda, here playing Laurel’s comically acerbic Russian wife, Ida, with Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s contrasting wife, Lucille. The cast also includes Danny Huston as Hal Roach, and a depiction by Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, in charge of trying to boost the careers of the comedians, past the best years of their fame as they make a British music hall tour in 1953 in hope of stimulating their plans to do a “Robin Hood” film.
The overall view of their lives as shown here is a sad one. Resentment has brewed about the greater fame and fortune that Charlie Chaplin achieved. The story of rise and decline is a familiar one that other stars have endured. But the Laurel-Hardy situation, as dramatized here, is an extra complicated one as a result of the symbiosis involved. Each is little without the other, a condition that is tough to face.
“Stan & Ollie” excels in this respect. The film, its period settings created with expertise, becomes moving, thanks to the convincing performances by Coogan and Reilly. And yet we get some very funny scenes reminding us of why the team was so great. I have fond recollections of when as a child I sat with buddies in a small town local theater on Saturday matinees, and when the bouncy theme music for Laurel and Hardy came on, we squealed with delight in anticipation. Watching “Stan & Ollie” revived such memories even as the film maturely communicated the dark side behind their comedy in exploring the problems in their relationship. But "Stan & Ollie" also sentimentally captures the deep affection they are shown to harbor despite the pressures and disappointments that came along with the adulation. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed December 26, 2018.