In post-war Britain, with their glory days behind them, famed comedy duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) now tour several small venues around the country with the intention of raising money for a new feature film but things don’t go smoothly as their shows are poorly attended, their fame appears to be diminishing, the possibility of a new film appears increasingly uncertain, and Ollie’s diminishing health combined with long buried grievances between the two actors threaten to tear them both apart. But with the support of their loving wives and the various faithful fans, can their friendship endure and can they get through their final show?
Well, where better to start than with the central duo? The actors playing the title roles are crucial to the film’s success and thankfully, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are more than up to the task and they make the film a pleasure to watch throughout. As Stan, Steve Coogan gets his speech patterns, mannerisms and “arm flailing” just right and he also gets all the wittiest one-liners, delivering them with the comic timing of the seasoned pro that he is. But the Stan of this story is also a dedicated workoholic, always writing and coming up with new material and Coogan proves himself to be equally adept in the more serious moments, during the times when his relationship with Ollie gets particularly tumultuous, and it’s clear that he puts plenty of thought into his performance and that it means a great deal to him; it’s a admirably well rounded performance and Coogan is well cast in the role.
Opposite, John C. Reilly is equally impressive as Oliver “Babe” Hardy; with the help of some very impressive make-up and prosthetics – with those seamless Darkest Hour jowels – he is a dead ringer for the beloved performer and he completely nails Ollie’s facial expressions (including his many exasperated looks to the audience, which Oliver Hardy could do like no other), body language and voice cadences – apparently never needing to do much of an impression since John C. Reilly’s voice is naturally similar to that of Oliver Hardy’s. Reilly is a continually lovable presence throughout and he completely gets lost in the character, delivering the affectionate comedy and occasional drama beautifully.
But it’s not just about the central duo and the supporting performances of Stan & Ollie are also charming and praiseworthy. As Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel, Shirley Henderson and Nina Adriana provide strong support as the unwaveringly loyal “women behind the men” – a great double act themselves; Henderson takes no prisoners as she disapproves of Ollie pushing himself too hard at the cost of his health and she shows plenty of care and compassion as well as a staunch spirit and strength and on the other side, Nina Adriana, though initially appearing as a Russian stereotype, can sometimes appear incredibly haughty, cold and blunt as Ida Laurel but there’s also depth and love in her performance and despite her scary demeanour and standoffish nature, she genuinely cares about the boys and Adriana shows this duality and hidden compassion quite brilliantly. Rufus Jones is also a fine addition as the lovably inept tour manager Bernard Delfont.
Along with the sincere performances, Stan & Ollie tells a good story as it attempts to tell of a specific period in the duo’s career (while occasionally flicking back and forth between both their heyday and the later stages of their lives) and it’s refreshing to see that this isn’t a hastily put together biopic of “when Laurel met Hardy”, instead being concise and covering a specific time period, focusing on the important themes of friendship and togetherness, wholeheartedly showing us the love and respect that the two performers had for each other and this is achieved admirably by Jeff Pope’s solid script that’s full of tenderness and a decent amount of affectionate humour. It’s no cash grab, just a harmless and well meaning little film.
But despite the film’s best intentions, I couldn’t help but feel as though there was something missing – that the film was perhaps playing it too safe and inoffensive. Of course, with a film that’s concerned with the friendship of a beloved comedy duo, this is precisely the type of film that you’d expect it to be but for me, I’d say that the film never really “popped” or came to life; it maintained the same steady pace from start to finish and I couldn’t help but feel as though everyone was holding back somehow – that the film was perhaps too gentle and a little twee for its own good.
On the technical front, Stan & Ollie is a pleasure to behold as the production design – creating the locations of post-war Britain – is excellent, the music is suitably chirpy and chipper, and the make up, hair and costuming is spot on; as mentioned before, the make-up team truly transform Coogan and Reilly into Laurel and Hardy and Reilly, in particular, is barely recognisable as he truly transforms into Oliver Hardy.
And their Way Out West dance routines, particularly the expertly directed and shot sequence right at the end (reminiscent of the endings of The Wrestler and Black Swan, if you think about it), are exquisite.