There’s a good reason why “Stan & Ollie” isn’t called “Laurel & Hardy,” even though it is a movie about the legendary screen comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. That’s because Jon S. Baird’s genial and warm-hearted film looks at them not as legends, but as men, who have their friendship tested by fame — when it’s there, and when it’s gone.
An opening scene shows Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) during the peak of their movie careers, big shots in 1937 Hollywood filming their classic comedy “Way Out West.” Coogan and Reilly recreate the iconic duo and their routines to an uncanny degree. Coogan channels Laurel’s sheepish deadpan charm, while Reilly, disappearing behind a fat suit and some extensive face prosthetics, captures Hardy’s good-natured bluster.
On film, Hardy was the alpha male while Laurel was the buffoon, but the roles were reversed when the cameras stopped rolling. Hardy was a jovial guy who spent more than he should have on gambling and women (including five wives), while Laurel toiled away on the scripts, sharpening the gags to razor-sharp precision.
Laurel was ambitious and somewhat envious of the acclaim bestowed on Charlie Chaplin, and wanted the duo to break free of their restrictive contract with studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston). But Hardy didn’t want to make waves, and when Laurel left the studio, Hardy agreed to do a movie with another actor, a decision that put a schism in their friendship for years to come.
The movie skips ahead to 1953 and Laurel and Hardy, now both over 60, reunite for a live tour of England. Laurel is hoping to drum up interest from a British producer in a comeback movie, and wants to prove that the duo is still a draw. Hardy, perhaps feeling a little guilty about betraying his partner 16 years earlier, goes along.
There’s a poignancy to watching the former screen legends schlep their bags from Manchester to Birmingham, playing for half-empty houses. They’re still very funny, even to modern audiences, thanks to Reilly and Coogan’s note-perfect recreation of their comic chemistry. But they’re relics of an entertainment era that had vanished by the 1950s. In one scene, an audience member asks the ticket taker who will be playing the parts of Laurel & Hardy, convinced that the actual guys must be long since retired.
The hardships of the tour take their toll on Hardy’s health and on their friendship, and old wounds reopen. But Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope (“Philomena”) keep the tone affectionate and light, if a little wistful, as these two longtime partners face the end of their careers together.
It’s an unexpected, melancholy slice of their lives to focus on, but it makes you appreciate even more how big they were in their day, and how good they were at spinning a simple vaudevillian gag into a brilliant routine.
And “Stan & Ollie” makes you appreciate the enduring friendship that survived the ups and downs of that career, a true double act onscreen and off. I won't spoil the epilogue, but the last line of the film is almost guaranteed to make you mist up.