It’s near impossible to overstate the influence of Laurel and Hardy on the world. In a career that began in the 1920s and spanned almost 30 years, the pair virtually pioneered the art of the double act and left a comedic legacy that few others have been able to rival. The harsh truth, though, is that even if you’re the world’s greatest double there comes a point when the laughs must eventually dry up. And that’s the truth that Stan & Ollie captures.
The film captures the tumultuous period when Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C.Reilly) embarked on one final tour of Britain during the 1950s. It soon becomes clear that the pair still have the magic touch, though the world has seemingly moved on. As they play to half-empty theatres across the UK, it isn’t long before old grudges rise to the surface and they’re left to face growing uncertainty over their future.
Despite sounding like a bittersweet look at two legendary funnymen, director Jon S.Baird goes far in ensuring that Stan & Ollie is one of the most lovingly crafted biopics to have emerged from Hollywood in years. In his hands, it’s an emotional examination of the legendary pair’s enduring relationship – and a fuzzy celebration of friendship through the eyes of two men that changed the world forever. Coogan and Reilly are the Dictionary definition of perfect casting. For his part, Coogan gives his strongest non-Partridge big screen performance to date as he portrays the many different sides of Stan Laurel.
There’s a steely determination as Laurel steadfastly refuses to accept that the duo are facing their twilight years, but Coogan also shows an effortless emotional edge, pairing his ambition with the enduring brotherly romance that he shares with his comedic partner. Reilly puts in arguably his most affecting performance – and one that personifies that oldest of adages: the show must go on. He shines through layers of prosthetics to reflect Hardy’s doggedness as he battles the perils of ill health with a grin, but there’s a real tenderness, too, as he’s wracked with the guilt of previously leaving Hardy for another comedic partner. It’s a total contrast from the ‘straight man’ role that Hardy so famously portrayed.
Their performances are also aided in no small part by Jeff Pope’s screenplay – which cuts straight to the heart of the pair’s bubbling grievances.
“You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me”, Hardy earnestly tells Laurel in one of the film’s most affecting sequences. Fittingly, the depiction of actual romance is effectively framed like a double act too. Shirley Henderson plays a caring Lucille Hardy, while her opposite comes in Nina Arianda who almost upstages the title pair as Ida Laurel, Stan’s hilariously icy wife.
Ultimately, this is a film about the enduring nature of friendship , but it’s also a brilliantly crafted love letter to the greatest double act of all time. It celebrates the pair in the way that they entirely deserve. There’s no fine mess to be seen here.