Review: ‘Stan & Ollie,’ Laughing Through the Tears

dfn_stanandollie_poster_300Wonderfully witty, with a lovely undercurrent of earned sentiment and tender wistfulness, Stan & Ollie follows the famed comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as they embark on their final tour.

The tour is not meant to be the end of their comic partnership; rather, it’s intended to be a new beginning for the two, who had last worked together on the 1937 film Way Out West. A contract dispute by Laurel with Hal Roach Studios led to the separation; he was fired and Hardy, still under contract, continued with a new partner, at least for a time.

The old friends reunite in 1953 and, initially, all seems well. Sure, they are booked into smaller halls than they expected for their live show, and the shows draw pitiably few customers, yet their comic chemistry easily returns, even as strains in their relationship begin to show.

In time, Hardy’s poor health betrays his outward attempts to ignore his condition, and the cracks in his friendship with Laurel become more pronounced. At the passive-aggressive urging of their booking agent, they begin doing publicity for their tour, which is all meant to drum up interest in their promised London play-dates and set them up for a return to the big screen. Things do not go according to plan, however, and the cracks in their friendship gradually are exposed to be quite large and gaping.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are marvelously understated in their characterizations of the famed comedians, overcoming my trepidations. Of course, they do not replace my memories of seeing the original Laurel & Hardy in their films, but they create and suggest, rather than impersonate or imitate.

Laurie Rose’s gorgeous color photography is a big asset; he captures the actors and the action with soft shades of gold and a rich variety of primary colors that bathe every scenario in beauty. Jon S. Baird, whose credits include the feature film Filth and episodes of TV shows Vinyl, Feed the Beast, and I’m Dying Up Here, keeps the narrative moving at a confident pace, framing the comedy routines to heighten the humor and allow us as moviegoers to see Laurel & Hardy as they might have looked to audiences on that tour.

Coogan and Reilly are ably supported by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as the wives; the actresses bring a surprising chemistry of their own to the production. Rufus Jones plays the booking agent with an annoying air of passive-aggressiveness that feels quite accurate; Danny Huston contributes a gruff turn as producer Hal Roach.

What is perhaps most surprising about the film is that it’s quite funny in its own right. Coogan and Reilly are gifted comic performers who have both shown their abilities as dramatic actors in the past; here they have the daunting challenge of suggesting an all-time great comic team and they nail their performances.

It makes Stan & Ollie very easy to watch and a most enjoyable experience. And, yes, now I want to watch again all the movies that Laurel and Hardy made together.

The film will open at various theaters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, January 25. Check local listings.