When I was a kid, the rainy day entertainment on offer at my grandparents’ house—a disordered stack of clamshell packaged VHS tapes—included Winnie the Pooh, Humphrey the Bear, the Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen version of The Three Musketeers (strange days for Disney), and an old black and white film called Utopia. This film followed two friends, a dyspeptic fat man and his thin, mostly silent buddy, on a sea voyage gone wrong. They land by accident on an island raised from the sea overnight by an storm, establish their own government, and have to deal with the consequences as adventurers eager to make a buck mob the new island republic. There’s probably a lot going on in the movie that I didn’t get as a kid, but I did enjoy the banter and physical comedy of the two leads—Utopia, which came out in 1951, was my introduction to Laurel and Hardy.
Years later, long after that VHS disappeared, I learned that it was their last film.
Stan & Ollie picks up two years after Utopia and tells the story of Laurel and Hardy’s last live tour, a trip up and down the length of Britain to raise money—and the interest of producers—for a their passion project, a Robin Hood comedy. Every incident, every circumstance reminds them that they are past their prime. They draw small crowds in less illustrious theaters and stay in inexpensive hotels. They carry their own luggage and trunks of props from station to station, checking in briefly with their oily promotional agent, whose obsequiousness doesn’t mask his greater interest in the other acts he represents. And they’re aging, taking medicines for their aches and pains and wishing they could have a drink or a cigarette though they’ve given up both.
But the greatest stress on the pair is the unhealed wound of professional betrayal. Years before, Laurel had tried to lead the team out of the studio system, to strike out on their own like other successful comedy acts, but Hardy had not followed. Worse, he went on to make a film—comically but also ominously referred to as “the elephant picture”—with someone else. Even reunited, these old friends step gingerly around this issue—as long as they can. The arrival of their wives, who nurse a cordial dislike of each other, and the revelation that Laurel has not been truthful about their potential Robin Hood deal with a film producer, strain their personal and professional relationship.
These pressures culminate in a tense, painful argument in which the pair air all their old grievances. Seem to have finally split irreparably, Hardy’s collapsing health means a second reconciliation may never come. Worse, their publicity man begins approaching Laurel with offers to work with other comedians to complete the tour.
Technically, Stan & Ollie is a handsomely mounted period piece with great sets and costumes and some very nice cinematography. The makeup and prosthetics, worn by both leads but most obvious on John C. Reilly, who wears a heavy fatsuit to play the aging Hardy, are the best I’ve seen since Gary Oldman’s transformation into Churchill in Darkest Hour. The verisimilitude is stunning. The writing is also solid, with a well-constructed screenplay that gives us a poignant window in the last stages of a great partnership rather than, Chaplin-style, trying to tell the whole story in two hours. The tone and pace are light and agile and, despite the subject matter, fun. A prologue set on the backlot of Hal Roach Studios during the filming of Way Out West in 1937 is a riot of old Hollywood iconography, as well as setting up all the conflict and backstory for the rest of the film—as well as a poignant bookend. It’s masterfully done.
But none of this would work without the performances, which are the real glory of Stan & Ollie. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the roles of Laurel and Hardy perfectly. These are not imitations or impressions, mere mechanical reproductions of the way the real men performed their sketches, but fully rounded, deft, and subtle performances. Coogan and Reilly’s ranges are perfectly matched, and both handle the broad comedy of the duo’s act and the fine, delicate dramatic scenes equally well, switching from one to the other naturally.
The reception scene in which Laurel and Hardy finally snap at each other is a case in point—anger, bitterness, sadness, regret, and sometimes more than one of these at the same time, all wash through each man’s features. Each is angry, and has a good reason to be; each is hurt, and has a good reason to be; each has the viewer’s sympathy, making their fight all the more painful. It’s excellent.
The entire supporting cast is great, too, especially the wives—Shirley Henderson as the fretful Mrs. Hardy and Nina Arianda as the chronically unimpressed has-been actress now known as Mrs. Laurel. But Coogan and Reilly own this film from beginning to end, not just resurrecting the style and fun of Laurel and Hardy (the comedy bits they reenact are hilarious—I laughed all the way through all of them) but making these icons real flesh and blood men with a real friendship.
By coincidence, just before watching Stan & Ollie I read Kyle Smith’s review of Tolkien, the brand new biopic (which I’ve written about before). Smith begins his review with the observation that, “There must be a hundred films about love for each one about friendship, and yet are the two not equally vital forces in our lives?” Stan & Ollie is a warm, poignant story about not just friendship, but the pains friends must take to remain friends through the difficulties and hurts that inevitably come between people. After their fight and a health scare that threatens to permanently break up the Laurel and Hardy team, the pair begin the process of reconciliation, repairing the trust and respect that friendship requires. Contrary to the accusations they fling at each other at their low point, friendships don’t just happen, and reconciliation isn’t a single magical moment—both come about through purposeful acts of love. So Laurel and Hardy end the film with their priorities reordered: their worldly successes and even their individual health come second to friendship.
Even if the movie weren’t as fun, endearing, and uplifting as it is, the final act makes it worth seeing.