Stan & Ollie is a late addition to my best of the year list. This wonderful film chronicling the final tour of the legendary comedy duo Laurel & Hardy is funny and poignant without ever becoming cloying or pushy. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly beautifully capture the history and the strain between the two great friends and partners as they attempt to salvage one last bit of glory before the spotlight fades for good.
In 1954, having not made a movie together in 15 years, Laurel & Hardy reunited for a tour of England in hopes of getting a movie project off the ground with an English producer. Things don’t get off to an auspicious start as their tour manager, Delfont (Rufus Jones) books them a run down hotel and a small theater that they are unable to sell out. Worse yet, the producer of their proposed film project won’t take Stan’s calls.
It even looks as if the tour will be cut short as ticket sales lag. Meanwhile, we cut to the back story of what let led to their break up 15 years earlier. Danny Huston portrays legendary producer Hal Roach, the man who put the duo together and brought them to the big screen. While Ollie is content with their arrangement, Stan, who once partnered with Charlie Chaplin before his days in the movies, wants to make more money.
With Stan’s contract up, he’s managed to book a deal with Fox but only for Laurel & Hardy, not just for himself. The deal fell through when Ollie decided to remain with Hal Roach and even made a movie, Zenobia, without his long time partner. Zenobia wasn’t a hit and for more than a decade both men’s careers foundered. We don’t know what brought them back together but a payday in England appears to have been the reason.
Even still, the two have a tremendous stage act that we get glimpses of and those glimpses are hysterically funny. As the story progresses, the two begin to do press for the tour and eventually the tour begins to gain ground and sell out shows. Naturally, old tensions eventually come back to light and the tour is thrown into chaos when it appears that Hardy’s health won’t allow him to continue.
Stan & Ollie was directed by Jon S Baird whose previous film, Filth starring James McAvoy, is quite a departure from the gentle and sweet poignance of Stan & Ollie. Nevertheless, Baird does a tremendous job keeping a good pace and with cinematographer Laurie Rose, he’s crafted not just a funny movie, but quite a beautiful movie. Credit also goes to prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier for turning the lanky Mr Reilly seamlessly into the corpulent Mr Hardy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also praise screenwriter Jeff Pope who worked from the book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours by A.J Marriott. The dialogue though mostly inferred feels real and dynamic and authentic. The lovely recreations of the Laurel & Hardy performances are wonderful but it is the private moments that resonate deeply, especially a near break up scene that plays as comedy for those who can’t hear the deeply hurtful things the two say to one another.
And then, of course, there are the two incredible performances at the center of the film. John C Reilly has earned both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award nomination for his performance as Oliver Hardy and both are much deserved. Reilly, even under pounds of prosthetics finds the heart of Oliver Hardy in lovely fashion. He appears to have been a lovely man and while the film likely shaves the edges off of all of these characters, this is a lovely way to remember these men.
Steve Coogan in many ways has the much harder performance. Stan Laurel played the fool in many of the Laurel & Hardy movies, bumbling his friend into one silly bit of nonsense after the other, but behind the scenes, Laurel was a force to be reckoned with. Laurel wrote much of the duos routines for stage and screen and was even deferred to by many directors for how to film those routines, though he never earned a directors credit.
Coogan movingly captures the pain and frustration that made Stan Laurel so driven and yet so kind. He wasn’t wrong to want to get the duo more money, they were rather underpaid given their success, and it is a fine tribute to the man that he never stopped fighting for the recognition that he felt they both deserved, but especially for the endless hours of work he put in to make them so successful.
Stan & Ollie is a wonderful movie, a true crowd pleaser. It’s a movie that fans and friends and family of the legendary duo can be proud of. Yes, they had their petty differences and egotism but at the heart, they were showmen and dedicated friends. Stan & Ollie is the kind of tribute these two men deserve after so many years of being under-recognized behind contemporaries such The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the copycats who came after such as Abbott & Costello and, to a lesser extent, Marin & Lewis.