In terms of famous duos, the list of names more prominent than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is minuscule, yet their relationship wasn’t always sparkling. Jon S. Baird’s film begins in 1937, the heyday for Laurel and Hardy when both men were the toast of Hollywood. Hardy (John C. Reilly) is happy with his lot in life, despite all of the money he sends out the door to ex-wives, but Laurel (Steve Coogan) is restless. His feuds with overbearing producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) have started to hinder filmmaking on set, and Laurel is all set to negotiate fairer terms with another studio. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton hold the rights to their films, but Hal Roach owns everything Laurel and Hardy made. Hardy needles Laurel’s professional jealousy of Chaplin and Keaton because, as he sees it, there’s no reason to rock the boat. Roach forces the issue and Hardy caves in, making Zenobia without Laurel. Laurel’s deal with Fox falls through without Hardy’s signature and the two lose the chance to own their films outright.
Flash forward sixteen years and the two comedians are worse for wear. Abbott and Costello have supplanted Laurel and Hardy as the marquee name in Hollywood, so both men find themselves in need of a hit. At their manager’s behest, the pair begins a tour of Britain and Ireland in small vaudeville theatres. Audience size pales in comparison to the shows they used to perform, but with the advent of home televisions, no one needs to pay to see Laurel and Hardy anymore. Roach’s lucrative syndication of Laurel and Hardy’s films made him a wealthy man, but the duo that made those movies have nothing to show for it. Originally, the tour started out as a launching pad for a Robin Hood film (Rob ‘Em Good), but the project soon turns into a last hurrah. Even Laurel admits they are “no spring chickens” and the effort for Hardy to perform is taking its toll on his health.
John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan aren’t asked to play the younger versions of Laurel and Hardy for long as Jon S. Baird focuses on their final tour for a majority of the film. It’s the right call considering how many biopics try to cover far too much. Going into depth over a small portion of a subject’s life can reveal much more than only skimming the surface over an entire lifetime. By illuminating a lesser-known aspect of their careers, Stan and Ollie gets to the crux of the character study: how do actors with a passion for performing deal with waning relevance? When a fan offers authentic praise, “I can’t believe you’re still doing these old routines,” it can feel like a backhanded compliment. Even when Laurel and Hardy are winning over audiences, you can still see the wistful look in their eyes suggesting that they know it’s all coming to an end. Each curtain call serves as a reminder of mortality in a field that continually turns out new stars and buries old ones.
Credit is due to Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope for crafting a celebration of both men’s careers that is also realistic about the highs and lows of creative collaboration. While it would be tempting to just rehash the template of two old pros giving it their last shot, Baird/Pope tackle the lingering resentments that stood between Laurel and Hardy. This is no tears of a clown act, thankfully, the cast always finds a way to keep things from becoming morose.
Bad prosthetics could’ve sabotaged the film early, fortunately, the make-up work by Mark Coulier doesn’t inhibit Reilly and Coogan from emoting. John C. Reilly never gives a bad performance and his role as a big-softie terrified of losing others is another solid turn in a career full of them. Coogan’s turn is a little more nuanced but no less moving. He captures Laurel’s quick wit and also his compulsive need to make others laugh, especially when in the face of obstacles. The litmus test for performing as famous people in biopics is how easily actor pull off practiced mannerisms, but, more importantly, Reilly and Coogan nail the internal mood of the comedy duo. And it’s not just the guys who get to have fun. The wives in biopics are often relegated to mop-up duty, though that’s hardly the case for Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda). The better halves of Laurel and Hardy are a mismatched comedy duo in their own right, stealing several scenes where the wives play off the comically befuddled agent Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).
One wouldn’t expect the filmmaker behind Filth – the raunchfest starring James McAvoy – to create a cinematic love letter to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, yet that’s exactly what Jon S. Baird did. Stan and Ollie is an unassuming biopic that is heavy on heart without being saccharine about it. Baird also has the good sense to infuse levity in the moments where the comedians are off-stage, blending in flights of fancy from some of the duo’s famous bits into life’s mundane moments. An awkward encounter at a producer’s office results in Laurel recreating his famous hat bit to sneak by a rude receptionist. The worst thing that anyone could have done was to make a somber account of two truly funny men.
At a breezy 97 minutes, the film succeeds as a tribute to a pair of screen legends that deserved better toward the end. Stan and Ollie doesn’t replace the numerous classics that they made together, but it won’t have to. The reputations of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy will live on.