It could have been a standard by-the-numbers origin-story biopic — instead, Stan & Ollie looks at the legendary screen duo of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) as their career winds down. The emphasis here is on the way the funny bits in their lives come tinged with melancholy — not a bad thing, really, when you’ve actors like these who can deftly balance both comedy and tragedy. Taking a swerve taking from the cocaine cowboys of Filth, director Jon S. Baird seems to have an instinctive grasp that the best course of action would be to trust his performers. Well played, sir.
Born, like Stan, in Lancashire, England, Coogan nails the fussy mannerisms and mischievous wordplay of the British half of duo. Though Laurel was known as the writing brains of the team, he delighted in playing the fool to Ollie’s exasperated curmudgeon. Reilly, encased in a fat suit and a latex double chin, is staggeringly good as Hardy, never losing sight of the big man’s light-on-his-feet performing skills or the painstaking effort it took to make it look easy. “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” was a famous (often misquoted) line of the man nicknamed “Babe,” always the result of some prank pulled by his partner. Right before our eyes, Coogan and Reilly simply become “Stan & Ollie,” without ever letting the makeup, costumes and bowler hats do the acting for them. It’s a remarkable transformation.
Working from a warmly personal script by Jeff Pope, who had previously collaborated with Coogan on Philomena, the film follows the two comics on a tour through the British isles in 1953. By this time, their fame had faded; Ollie is overweight and sickly, and their manager (an amusingly manic Rufus Jones) has booked them into half-empty theaters and music halls. It’s also made clear that Stan and Ollie rarely socialized in the years between. Still, the bond between the men grows stronger as they run through their old routines in front of live audiences, all of whom grow increasingly enraptured by their antics. Coogan and Reilly are especially enjoyable doing the dance from Way Out West, a series of dainty little steps that became a staple of their act.
Along the ride are their respective wives, ever alert to any slights to their husbands and battling each other for the upper hand. Shirley Henderson is a tiny force of nature as Ollie’s wife Lucille, a former script supervisor on the team’s films. She may be dwarfed by her husband’s size but a fierce guardian of his shaky health (after suffering a series of strokes, Hardy died at 65, four years after the period depicted in the film).
A terrific Nina Arianda takes a different tack as Ida, Stan’s Russian dynamo of a spouse. The actress barrels hilariously through every scene, proudly referencing her former career as a dancer and taking no prisoners when she’s crossed. The two wives engage in the same kind of prickly conflict as their husbands. And that situation gets worse when old resentments surface, such as the betrayal Stan felt when Ollie went off to do a film on his own. Yet the abiding love between these two men is never really in question. After the death of his beloved partner, the crestfallen Laurel never worked again.
Kudos to Coogan and Reilly, not just for their gifts of impersonation, but for detailing the bedrock connection at work and play between the two men: Stan the shy workaholic; Ollie the fun-seeking extrovert. The film gins up a few conflicts, like who was to blame for the team’s planned film about Robin Hood that never came to fruition. But their lifelong allegiance is never in doubt. When Stan was too ill to attend his friend’s funeral, he simply said, “Babe would understand.” And thanks to the award-caliber teamwork of Coogan and Reilly, we also understand. You don’t want to miss the pleasure of their company.