It’s been almost 75 years since Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy released their final US movie (1945’s The Bullfighters), but their constant fans—along with new ones they’ll surely earn as a result of Jon S. Baird’s rollicking, heartfelt biopic—still regard them as one of the hands-down, funniest comedy acts in history. Though Stan and Olliemay only give us sporadic glimpses of the pair’s on-stage magic, it’s enough to remind us of their brilliance. More importantly, though, we are finally afforded the opportunity to take in the poignant, behind-the-scenes story of their 30-year friendship.
The movie begins in 1937, with Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) at their peak, filming the famous Way Out West. After a quick scene showing them in a salary kerfuffle with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), we fast-forward sixteen years to the pair’s farewell live tour through Great Britain. Their star has waned considerably—they’re lucky if they fill half the seats in small community theaters—but they’re still enjoying what they’re doing, and Laurel is working to find the financing for the pair’s take on Robin Hood.
Eventually, even though the crowds pick up, both Laurel and Hardy come to realize their career is on its last legs. The movie financing never comes through, Hardy’s health is starting to fail, and Hollywood is already moving on to the next big thing. Tempers get heated, tears are shed, and we’re witness to it all in a bittersweet but ultimately fulfilling look at the real men behind the comedy act.
Baird (TV’s Vinyl and Feed the Beast) is able to perfectly capture the time period, but more importantly, he brings Laurel and Hardy back to life right before our eyes. Working from a script by Jeff Pope (Philomena), he expertly blends the duo’s on-stage and off-stage worlds to give us a complete, warts-and-all look at the two men and the people in their lives (including their wives), which gives their legacy a healthy dose of much-needed depth. Until now, Laurel and Hardy have been little more than a series of black-and-white movies and sketches, but Stan and Ollie makes it feel as though we’re finally getting to meet them both.
Reilly and Coogan do a masterful job capturing the personalities and mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy; it’s not an imitation so much as an impression built on the foundation of outstanding acting talent. They both genuinely melt into their characters (with the help of outstanding makeup by Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier and costumes by Guy Speranza) and successfully bring the comedy team to life.
Despite all the joy Laurel and Hardy brought to the masses, the story of their final years is a melancholy one, and Stan and Ollie doesn’t shy away from more than occasionally tugging at ye olde heartstrings. At its heart, though, the film is a beautiful celebration of some of the best comedy the world has ever known and a long-overdue tribute to two remarkable men.