By: Steve Pulaski
The timeless quality of Laurel & Hardy shorts can be confirmed by doing one simple thing: popping in old videos or simply spending some time watching their shorts online and enjoying a hearty laugh. Their comedy is as basic as can be, but their undeniable chemistry and goofy hi-jinks only become more apparent the more you watch them. The most surprising thing about Jon S. Baird's Stan & Ollie is what took it so long to get made. A biopic about the celebrated but difficult working relationship between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy begs dramatization more-so than it does a documentary, and Baird's film delivers a warm, genial ode to two of the most legendary names in the history of comedy.
Wisely forgoing the route of a comprehensive film about the duo's upbringing, meeting, and eventual three-decade long marriage in films and shorts together, writer Jeff Pope dedicates the 90-minute film to examining their career between 1937 and 1953. It begins at Hal Roach Studios, where Laurel and Hardy are enduring a meteoric run in Hollywood. Despite the success, Stan can't help but feel that Roach (Danny Huston) is grossly mishandling their finances as they are long overdue for even a small raise. His relationship with Roach is prickly to say the least, but Oliver is far more easy-going, happy to be along for the ride and living off of whatever money he hasn't spent on horses or past divorces.
Fast-forward to the 1950s, where Laurel and Hardy are now ejected from the current comedy culture, which is more defined by Hollywood movies and less by recurring duos and troupes. The two men are amidst a tour of less-than-desirable and comparatively small music halls in the United Kingdom, working with their tour manager, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), in hopes of getting funding for their "Robin Hood" parody that Stan cannot stop rewriting and tinkering. Oliver is much heavier than he used to be, and his weight begins putting stress on his knees, making the dancing and slapstick increasingly difficult. The two aren't young anymore; in fact, they're behind the times and only beloved by an audience who waxes nostalgic about their heyday. They are often greeted by fans who say something along the lines of, "I can't believe you two are still at it; I thought you retired years ago!"
When their tour reaches London, they are embraced by their wives — Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) — both grating but eminently supportive of their respective husband, and oddly enough, just what each of them need as a rock. The two could star in their own separate movie, that's how great Arianda and Henderson are together. Their relationship is similar to the one their husband's share, only far more bickering occurs in between having one one another's backs.
Stan and Oliver quibble every now and then, but things come to a head at a big celebration when Stan lashes out at his partner for not supporting him during contract renegotiations with Roach and instead going along and doing another film without him. Oliver claps back with the assertion that Stan only loves "Laurel and Hardy" as opposed to valuing him as a friend and a confidant. Both things could be true, but it'd be stranger to say that the two had no harsh disagreements when working with one another as opposed to butting heads, even in comparatively tamer ways than what we've seen from other groups and friends in the past. The Four Seasons, on the other hand, would love to have only had this kind of beef.
I'm sure many will lament the simple story structure and downplayed conflicts, which is admittedly an issue, in Stan & Ollie, but Laurel and Hardy were simple fellas, so it's only fitting Baird's film, for lack of a better statement, is what it is: a tender, quietly funny, and ultimately moving little ditty that boasts some quality comic performances. Laurel and Hardy are embodied by the exuberant and talented Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, who fit their roles like a glove. Coogan can wear Laurel's cheeky smirk like it was pasted on him with special effects, and Reilly can emulate the reactive nature of Hardy in such a beautiful manner, it disarms you long enough to have a smile form on your face.
One goes to a movie like Stan & Ollie to be treated to a nostalgic, almost picturesque detailing of the good ol' days, and maybe see a side of the famous duo we had never seen before. Despite overlooking some of the more underlying issues of their friendship as if to remain smiley and positive, Baird and Pope do a fine job at keeping the story moving like one of the great Laurel and Hardy shorts or movies. We never focus on negative for too long, and besides, there's the beautiful cinematography by Laurie Rose (who worked collaboratively on last year's Overlord) and the terrific special effects work, which makes Reilly's pudginess believable and not akin to "Weird Al" Yankovic in his famous "Fat" music video. There's much in Stan & Ollie to love — much to laugh at and much to embrace like the warm, comforting arms of an old, familiar friend. Commence to dancin', commence to prancin'.