Coogan And Reilly Triumph In "Stan & Ollie"

Perfectly cast and surprisingly touching, Laurel and Hardy biopic “Stan & Ollie” quickly sheds a skin of superficiality in favor of something deeper and warmer. The movie kicks off in 1937, a decade into the comedy duo’s creative partnership and at the apex of their popularity. Having navigated the tricky transition from silent films to talkies – and sating a down-and-out nation’s thirst for laughs along the way – cinema’s most iconic double act begins to face off screen frustrations.

While filming western comedy “Way Out West,” Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) balks at re-upping with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston). He feels he and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), the hulking funny man to his average-sized straight man, haven’t been fairly compensated for their work. They own none of their films and struggle to pay alimony to a throng of ex-wives. But Laurel’s ire makes Hardy uncomfortable, resulting in a permanent schism between the two.

Cut to sixteen years later. The Great Depression and World War II are long gone. The sun has set on the duo’s renown, leaving nostalgia-based live shows as their bread and butter. “Philomena” Screenwriter Jeff Pope picks up as Stan and Ollie soldier on through mostly empty music halls in the United Kingdom, older and perhaps wiser but still harboring resentment over what transpired in the late ‘30s. Following “Way Out West,” Ollie went on to make a studio picture without Stan. Despite a probably inevitable reunion, the relationship was never the same. And now in 1953, facing an uneasy end to an illustrious career, said friction builds.

The perils of creative and professional partnerships remain relatively unexplored on film, and Pope and director Jon S. Baird use this to their great advantage. Theirs is not a film of anger and shouting matches but bubbling undercurrents of bitterness. Instead of a run-of-the0mill biographical film, writer and director skillfully mine the strangeness of what was essentially a marriage between two men largely unsuited to one another.

Of course the effect wouldn’t be nearly as potent without Coogan and Reilly, each star preternaturally befitting of his role here. There are the physical similarities, sure. (Reilly’s fat suit and prosthetics bely his natural resemblance to Hardy). But the spirit, far more important to procuring the illusion, is dead on. Coogan takes to Laurel’s hangdog half-grin like it’s second nature, while Reilly makes for the quintessential gentle giant.

The world’s finest casting director would be hard-pressed to do better.

The two actresses playing the leads’ wives (Oliver’s third and Stan’s fourth) prove nearly as vital. Shirley Henderson is Lucille Hardy, a “straight man” in her own right, while Nina Arianda runs away with more than one scene as Ida Kitaeva Laurel. These women add an important dimension to Stan and Ollie’s relationship, quietly (or, in Ida’s case, no so quietly) illuminating their husbands’ less obvious sensibilities; Stan was a prideful writing machine, Oliver far quieter than his onscreen persona.

Given the talent involved it’s no miracle that “Stan & Ollie” is as good as it is, but it is sneakily incisive and, in the end, tremendously heartwarming. Provided forgiveness for a slow start and anticipation of chuckles instead of giant laughs, it makes it awfully hard not to fall under its spell.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 28, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston
MPAA Rating: PG (for some language, and for smoking)