Most of us have that one friend in your life that despite wishing they didn’t, knows you better than anyone else. Both a blessing and a curse, they know all of your great traits but they know your flaws too. This kind of connection not only brings a certain closeness but with it comes resentment and everything that comes in between, we can’t help it. Stan & Ollie is about one such friendship and all the joy and heartbreak that comes from their impressive lives together.
Set during the final days of Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy’s (John C Reilly) career, Stan & Ollie follows the two as they try to reinvigorate their careers with a tour of England as they try to reconnect after years apart. Falling into familiar patterns the two hide personal problems from the other while trying to remain relevant in a world that has forgotten about them, something they are adamant to change by whatever means.
The story here feels oddly analogous to the intention of director Jon S Baird who is clearly devoted to bringing Laurel & Hardy to a new generation of viewers, much in the same way their final tour was supposed to rally fans old and new to their re-emergence. This is an affectionate tribute to a double act that set the bar for duos for years to come. Their story isn’t all roses and champagne, there are very real demons here but all the best friendships come with baggage.
Filled with elements of betrayal, forgiveness and understanding, writer Jeff Pope picked the perfect moment to dive into this world of comedy and tragedy. Both Coogan and Reilly have a deep affection for the material and the significance of their characters but if push came to shove, this is Coogan’s shining moment. Not only is Stan wonderfully closed off, Coogan hides such deep admiration behind all of his bravado. Ollie however is an extremely stubborn man, hiding it behind a want to please everyone, himself included. Reilly connects to the buried selfishness within him making his determination admirable instead of piteous.
We may be watching because of the celebrity factor but Baird connects us to these two through their undeniable chemistry and the joy they bring their viewers and each other. Nobody can truly understand what it is like to be Laurel & Hardy, only they can and it is this friendship and closeness that gives the film such effortless flow. Watching these two fall back into their old routines, both on and off stage has such a vibrant glee to it you can’t help but smile.
Sure they are still people making the same mistakes they have all their career, but these two cling onto the journey more than the milestones that define it for others. Stan & Ollie are still the same headstrong people they remember but they could always see through each others bull. There are no villains or heroes here, just two men facing limitations they haven’t had to face yet and struggling to come to terms with them.
Yet despite all the seriousness, this is a comedy at heart. Not only do Ollie and Stan’s antics come across as humorous more often than not but the addition of their wives, Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda) gives yet another double act to feast upon. Equal parts vicious and soft, the two aren’t just married to their husbands but each other. If Reilly and Coogan are responsible for the drama, Henderson and Arianda make the film brim with heart and laughs. The old adage that behind every great man is a great woman might be a little behind the times but here it feels right.
While easy to get bogged down in the complexities of the film but Baird here has constructed a light, breezy biopic that wants more than anything for viewers to have fun, much like Stan & Ollie are trying to do. The frivolity on display is infectious and if you don’t have a beaming smile by the end I question your humanity because you can’t help but think about all the wonderful moments that brought you to this point. Like I said earlier, it’s not the end or the big moments, it’s the fun of the journey, it makes letting go a little less painful.