Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Jeff Pope, “Stan & Ollie” is not your standard biopic. Arriving nearly a century after the formation of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, the film certainly is not relying on its subject to draw an audience. Likewise, it eschews the standard career arc rise-and-fall narrative, focusing instead on a brief period in 1953— well after their Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and 40s—when the duo reunited for a series of live appearances in the United Kingdom, in hopes of generating public interest and financing for a new movie. The resulting story is a bittersweet reflection on the complicated nature of artistic collaboration and the ephemeral nature of fame.
From the start, the duo are faced with the indignities of faded stardom: half-empty houses in second- and third-tier theaters, cheap hotels, and back-handed compliments (“They're still doing the same old bits”). Yet onstage, the pair effortlessly recreate some of those “bits” with a grace and timing that belie their age.
Simply seeing these routines brought to life again evokes a certain nostalgic joy, and one can only hope that viewers unfamiliar with the duo are moved to seek out the original shorts. Yet John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan deliver performances that go well beyond mimicry. Coogan's Laurel is the more strained performance, suggesting complex and shifting emotions with the mere raising of an eyebrow or crossing of a leg. Buried beneath a formidable layer of prosthetics, Reilly captures the gracefulness of Hardy's movements, the daintiness that was always so amusingly antithetical to the big man's imposing girth and bluster.
Their interaction and timing off stage is just as deft, like two old friends who know each other so well that each can anticipate the other's actions, resulting in several moments of life imitating art, the line between the two often difficult to discern, even for them. And that ambiguity extends to the duo's famous on-screen bickering, mirrored in real life by a simmering resentment over a brief parting of the ways that occurred years earlier (an event that unfolds in an unnecessary prologue set in 1937). At one point, a real-life argument during a London reception actually generates applause.
The wives—diminutive Lucille (Shirley Henderson), Hardy's third wife, and proud Russian-born Ida (Nina Arianda), Laurel's fourth—arrive on the scene, providing humor through their own forceful, mismatched personalities. Still, the focus throughout remains on the artistic marriage of Stan and Ollie, a partnership that weathered decades, wives, and changing tastes.
Employing a muted palette reminiscent of sepia, Baird portrays these cultural giants as they face their twilight years surrounded by the signs of a world that is leaving them behind (the sounds of nascent rock and roll; one-sheets for their crass inheritors Abbott & Costello). Ultimately, “Stan & Ollie” looks back fondly, not just on the end of a career, but on the end of an era—when a tie flutter and a bit of soft-shoe could capture the world's heart.