Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
Stan Laurel (1890-1965, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957, born Norvell Hardy) were mildly popular performers in their own right when, in 1927, producer Hal Roach paired them together as a comedy duo. Wild success followed, thanks to silent shorts like Putting Pants on Philip (1927) and later sound hits such as The Music Box, which won the 1932 Academy Award for “Best Short Subject, Comedy.” Laurel and Hardy, it seemed, were a match made in cinematic heaven, the thin, British Laurel the perfect foil to the more rotund, American Hardy. Most of their films – which Laurel, the workhorse of the duo, wrote and often directed (though uncredited as the latter) – center around hairbrained schemes gone awry thanks to Laurel’s overeager application of misguided principles, much to audiences’ delight. They eventually moved into features, with the 1937 Way Out West a perennial favorite. The last movie they made together was the 1951 Utopia. Though Abbott and Costello surpassed them in popularity in the 1940s, their work stands the test of time, and is worth watching to this day.
Now comes their very own biopic. It is an eternally problematic genre, one that rarely surpasses the art of pedestrian homage to its subject, unless the filmmaker chooses a very specific point of view or point in time on which to focus. Here, director Jon S. Baird (Filth), working off a script by Jeff Pope (co-writer, Philomena), does exactly that, however, giving us late-era Laurel and Hardy as they attempt a comeback tour through English vaudeville halls in the early 1950s, their fame and health in eclipse. With Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge) as Laurel and John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers) as Hardy, the movie delivers a melancholy, sometimes funny and frequently moving late-in-life appreciation of the duo’s friendship and career. If it does not rise to the artistic pinnacle of the original material – how could it, really? – it still entertains, and does the world a great service by reminding us why Laurel and Hardy mattered, and what was lost when they departed the scene.
Coogan and Reilly both do fine work in their roles, supported by a strong ensemble of supporting players, the best of whom is Nina Arianda (Rob the Mob) as Laurel’s fourth (and final) wife, Ida. She’s a maelstrom of delightfully aggressive energy, a wonderful complement to Coogan’s restrained composure. The comedy bits performed onstage by Coogan and Reilly are amusing enough, but it’s the moments out of the limelight where the movie really shines, building the actors’ rapport through small gestures and comments that reveal a lifetime’s worth of shared experience. If Stan & Ollie, as a heartfelt eulogy to its titular characters, may not quite do their genius full justice, it certainly offers them full honors.