Stan & Ollie tells the true story of the legendary comedy duo of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) & Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) in the twilight of their careers as they come to terms with their fading notoriety and their decades-old friendship and partnership.
To provide some context, the film begins at the peak of Laurel & Hardy’s popularity, which gives us a nice peak at 1930’s Hollywood (which is always fascinating to see), as well as some insight into the backstage power struggle between the studio and two of the biggest comedic stars on the planet at the time (I honestly could have watched a full two hours of that dynamic alone).
We then move ahead nearly two decades as the duo are about to embark on a tour on England in hopes to raise enough interest from a London-based producer to finance a new Laurel & Hardy film. Their fall from grace is not absolute, but still significant. There is a fantastic contrast between the interaction between Laurel and Hardy as they begin their tour and when we first saw them in 1937. While we still see a very familiar and friendly banter between the two, there is an awkwardness that hangs in the air, as both are too painfully aware of their current status.
Stan and Ollie is a truly wonderful film. Reilly and Coogan’s performances are so pure and so authentic that you have no reason to not to believe that you’re actually watching Laurel & Hardy on screen. In fact, the closing credits offer archival footage and photos of the pair on the tour, and the differences between them and their modern-day counterparts are almost too minute to be noticed. Both actors absolutely transform into their respective roles. Front and center in the film is the friendship between Laurel and Hardy, which Reilly and Coogan play pitch perfect. There is nothing contrived or dishonest about how their relationship was written or portrayed.
Both John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan have extensive comedy backgrounds, which is what I believe was necessary to play these roles with any sense of believability. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had absolutely impeccable comedic timing, and that type of timing doesn’t necessarily come naturally for all actors. Reilly and Coogan both have that comedy gene, which allows the actors to not only very believably recreate some classic Laurel & Hardy routines, but also provide some very authentic comedic banter between the duo.
Enough also can’t be said about the make-up work from Academy Award winner Mark Coulier. Reilly’s transformation into Oliver Hardy is stunning. Even in close-ups, it is impossible to notice any type of prosthetics on the actor. I can’t help but wonder if CGI was used to enhance the work, as it is that impressive.
The film falls into some of the familiar themes that one would expect from a biopic such as this, but everything about it is so incredibly sincere that it’s easy to overlook. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which clearly shoehorned the band’s narrative into a biopic story structure to the point of unbelievability, this felt natural and real. The film was based on A.J. Marriott’s book “Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours,” so I tend to believe that the events depicted in the film require a few less grains of salt to believe. The familiar tropes also result in little surprises to be found in the script, but that seems to lend a certain amount of comfort to the film.
Stan & Ollie is very unassuming, and while its easy-going nature might leave some movie-goers wanting a bit more substance, I found it to be absolutely delightful. I often say that if I walk away from a movie wanting to see more of the characters, then it’s an indication that I’ve enjoyed the film. Well, I would love to see Reilly and Coogan return as Laurel & Hardy, though as that is very unlikely, I’ll just have to settle for seeing Stan & Ollie again.