I love this movie! You might think I’m an easy mark as a lifelong fan of Laurel and Hardy, but in fact that makes me more demanding. I rarely find Hollywood biopics satisfying. Never did I dream I could forget I was watching actors pretending to be these legendary comedians. That’s how convincing John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are in the leading roles. It goes way beyond makeup and costuming. Each man disappears into his character, becoming a living, breathing incarnation of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Steve Coogan has absorbed Stan Laurel’s gestures, hesitations, and overall body language. John C. Reilly reveals the humanity behind the famous scowls and jowls of Oliver Hardy. They are both believable and charming, whether they’re playing the popular duo performing their famous dance scene from Way Out West, working on stage in later years, or enacting poignant incidents from their real lives.
Screenwriter Jeff Pope chose to set this valentine to the immortal comedy team toward the end of their careers, as they set out on a tour of English music halls in the early 1950s. They have to face many indignities, playing to half-empty houses and coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer considered major stars. Stan tries to maintain a good front as he struggles to secure the financing to make one more film, and hasn’t the heart to tell his longtime partner that their prospects are evaporating.
The movie opens with a tantalizing flashback to 1937 as they stride across the Hal Roach Studio in Hollywood. Everything looks vivid and real—more real than we’ve pictured it before because it’s in color. My daughter Jessie, who was born on Stan Laurel’s birthday and is a huge fan (I raised her right), wishes the movie showed more of them in this period, so viewers unfamiliar with the team could see them at their best, not just in the waning days of their careers.
I don’t disagree, but Stan & Ollie immerses us in the two eras it depicts with impressive results. Director Jon S. Baird and his production team have it all down pat, from a Hollywood soundstage to a second-rate English hotel.
The supporting cast is equally good, with two superb actresses (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) as the wives who show up in England and take a hard look at the reality their husbands are trying to deny. My only disappointment is the depiction of their longtime boss Hal Roach by Danny Huston; he’s a one-dimensional character, as written, and hear Jeff Pope takes dramatic liberties with the truth.
In the end, I am willing to sacrifice facts for the sake of a larger reality; that’s what this loving tribute achieves. It’s an empathetic portrait of two great entertainers who encounter difficulties toward the end of their long collaboration. This is also the moment when they realize what a special bond they share, a deep and abiding love for each other. That’s what made Laurel and Hardy special, and makes this movie so endearing.