You’d think it’d be a pie in the face for Sony Pictures Classics to release a film about iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy without having their stage name in the title but in the case of Stan & Ollie, it speaks a testament to the genius of the pairing both on and away from the spotlight.
We are first introduced to Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Ollie Hardy (John C. Reilly) at the height of their career in 1937 in the backlot of a Hollywood studio. With their backs to the camera, the legendary pair quip about the impact divorce has had on their finances before building to a penultimate punchline of Hardy wanting to get married for the third time.
Jumping ahead in time, the ageing duo (and Ollie now embroidered with a prosthetic chin that is rubber in look and has the same sheen as a Ken doll) embark on a reunion tour of the UK, in the hopes of salvaging their careers following a nearly twenty-year fallout with each other. Here in a British hotel lobby, the audience is first exposed to the film’s use of presenting the characters’ adorable interactions as a series of skits, a story device that delightfully parallels their stage life with their personal.
There is a refreshing quality to Stan & Ollie’s screenplay, with the use of innocent and silly humour that was well represented in the classic era of Hollywood put front and centre and being executed with the same level of delightfulness as if it had been told by your grandparent (who may well and truly have taken jokes from Laurel and Hardy’s material). Though the tension that caused the two to feud is addressed in the film, there is always a sense of politeness that lives throughout Stan & Ollie that speaks to the perseverance of friendship.
Director Jon S. Baird (a long way away from 2011’s Filth) shows great appreciation to the legacy of this iconic duo with Coogan, with much aplomb, playing to the cheekiness of Stan that balances out the seriousness of Reilly’s Hardy – who not since 2002’s Chicago (well, maybe 2008’s Step Brothers) impresses with his musical talents. Not to be outdone, the wives of the titular characters portrayed by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are themselves a dynamic odd-couple that not only ground the film but steal every scene they are in
Underneath their bowler hats, Stan & Ollie tells a heart-warming story about love, friendship and the love in friendship that is as timeless as the work of Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were the first choices of director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope for the roles of Laurel and Hardy.