Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the first comedy version of a Venn diagram. One skinny; one Falstaffian. Laurel hailed from England, while Hardy originated in Georgia. One fool; one taskmaster — who was which depended on if the camera was rolling. While their relationship remained symbiotic and tumultuous, their unlikely pairing produced the greatest comedic duo, possibly, ever — director Jon S. Baird‘s Stan & Ollie is a love story of two people who couldn’t live without each other.
Playing the legendary comedic team are Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, you can guess which is which. Both are spitting images of the two performers. Coogan and Reilly’s portrayals do not rely on mere artifice. They not only assume the mannerisms, gaits, and shticks of their subjects — Coogan and Reilly actualize the comedic legends’ frosty, yet warm dynamic. Reilly continues a string brilliant performances.
The film opens in 1937. At the time, Laurel and Hardy were under contract with Hal Roach — whose stars’ deals ran at different lengths. Laurel, whose deal was expiring, wanted better pay. However, Hardy was still the property of Roach. The two were presented with a choice: Hardy, dealing with big divorces and ex-wives to pay, and even larger gambling debts, could either hold out or find another partner and continue to work. Hardy would find another partner, causing a fracture in his relationship with his friend. The decision, seen as a betrayal by Laurel, reverberates throughout Baird’s film.
We then flash-forward 16 years in their career. Laurel and Hardy are no longer stars; in fact, they’re mostly viewed as over-the-hill, while younger acts like Abbott and Costello have taken their place. To revive their careers, Laurel and Hardy tour England and Ireland in the hopes of landing a film. The film’s story occurs during this rocky period of their careers.
Neither performer are who they once were, Hardy has gained weight and has a bum knee, while Laurel relies on the same bits that initially won them stardom but have become passé now. Nevertheless, the best portions of Stan & Ollie come when the pair perform their steady and hilarious routine. Purveyors of the duo will no doubt recognize their signature ‘Cuckoo Song,’ their egg gag, the doorway bit, and Hardy’s “A fine mess” catchphrase. And while Laurel was the clear visionary of the team, writing the gags and jokes, he clearly needed the chemistry and performative acumen of Hardy to thrive. Stan and Ollie never ceases to make that evident. The film never ceases demonstrate just as how funny these two were (which should be obvious to anyone who has watched a Laurel and Hardy film).
In the latter portions of the film, as the duo play to half-filled theaters during their tour and they’re coerced by Bernard Delfont (wonderfully played by Rufus Jones) — an unscrupulous promoter — to tirelessly promote their tour, they’re joined by their wives: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda). Lucille and Ida also form their own double act, both are completely devoted to their husbands and are annoyed by the other. They’re like adversarial in-laws, forced into knowing each other because of the people they love. And as Hardy’s health begins to fail, the love that matters most is the one felt with Laurel. Stan & Ollie is a touching tribute to a love that endured through disagreements and has survived through time.