In 1937, Stanley "Stan" Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver "Ollie" Hardy (John C. Reilly) were at the height of their careers. Sixteen years on, they go on a music hall tour of the UK but are disappointed by their shabby hotels and poor ticket sales. The two become determined to turn things around and remind everyone of what Laurel and Hardy are made of.
People underestimate the influence of Laurel and Hardy. Their names and faces are among the most recognisable from the Golden Age of Hollywood. They rose where many failed in making the transition from the silent to sound era (like their contemporary, Charlie Chaplin) of cinema. They were the original ‘odd couple’ with the ‘opposites attract’ trope (Englishman meets American, skinny man versus fat man being mimicked) utilised by generations of comic duos after. A tribute to their talent is long overdue.
In ‘Stan and Ollie’, one finds a number of sequences that mirror what you’d expect in their early films, for example, in a hotel scene involving a call bell, and another involving a trunk. One wonders if the idea is that they struggle to turn the buffoonery off, being naturally accident-prone, with the line between the characters they play and real personalities blurred. More likely, director Jon S. Baird (best-known for ‘Filth’, a different kettle of fish to this film altogether) wants to give viewers the experience of watching one of those classic 30s films. The gags are hit-and-miss, given the old-fashioned style comedy, and yet you find yourself warming up and laughing more as the film progresses.
Moreover, the film is saved thanks to its wonderful performances not only in Coogan and Reilly but Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle of ‘Harry Potter’ fame) and Nina Arianda. The others-halves of Stan and Ollie share a no-nonsense attitude, making them the ideal partners for their joker husbands. However, while Henderson’s Lucile Hardy is a mannerly, worrisome type, Arianda’s Ida Laurel is bold and blunt. The latter earns a number of laughs from her salty delivery of hilarious one-liners. Still, credit is due to both actresses, for their appearance reinvigorates the film just when it is getting a little dull.
As the titular pair, Coogan and Reilly are an immaculate fit. The hard work and organisation that clearly goes into their characters’ acts earns your respect; their playfulness earns your love. The actors have excellent chemistry and effectively emote the ups and downs their characters go through. You really believe in their relationship, and in the underlying tension arising from past mistakes that haunts it. Coogan is particularly good, realising Laurel’s looks, quirks and facial expressions down to a tee.
While the story lacks pizzazz, ‘Stan and Ollie’ is saved by its excellent acting – Rufus Jones’s humorous performance as the weaselly agent also deserves a mention – and lots of lovely moments, touching as well as funny. Watch out for the hotel room scene where Ollie is bed-bound, and a recreation of the dance from ‘Way Out West’ set to stunning cinematography, for these are the standout scenes.