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Review: Comedy royalty Laurel and Hardy get bittersweet biopic in 'Stan & Ollie'

Photo by Nick Wall, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photo by Nick Wall, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

For a movie about two comedic legends, Stan & Ollie is a sad affair.

Far removed from their Hollywood salad days, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) find themselves over the hill, broken down by respective vices, replaced by the new model (in this case, Abbott and Costello), and poorer for it. The slapstick duo decide to embark on a U.K. stage tour, with a shot at a new movie deal promised down the line. However, they soon find, like many other golden age actors, that happy endings are just for the movies.

Stan & Ollie does in some ways play out like your typical Oscar-bait biopic, which is only really a problem if you hate that sort of movie. And while the tailored Academy feel—the revealing period-piece vibe—is undoubtedly present, there’s enough divergence from its familiarities to skirt being run-of-the-mill.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope wisely opts out of a sprawling, front-to-back biography and instead limits the story, for the most part, to the comedians’ 1953 tour and their tenuous relationship at that time. You could see another take on Laurel and Hardy coming to life as a decades-spanning rise-and-fall narrative, but here we’re focused on aftermath, streamlined to a 1:37 runtime, and made to question the value of glory when we only see it faded.

As with many biopics, the filmmakers take some liberties with time and reality. Pope and director Jon S. Baird amalgamate what was in actuality a few different Euro tours and shift the timing of the duo’s movie deal—a comedic take on Robin Hood—to pack a harder punch. If you’re not a stickler for accuracy, this won’t be much of an issue, and Stan & Ollie as a drama is much sadder, if not wholly better, for it.

If there’s concern, so far removed from old Hollywood, that those who don’t know the act won’t get Stan & Ollie, know that you don’t have to be a Laurel and Hardy superfan to appreciate this movie. Yes, Coogan and Reilly’s performances are certainly more impressive if you have some familiarity with the subjects’ idiosyncrasies and famous routines, but the movie is so rooted in the chemistry and subtle antagonism between the two leads that classic-film knowledge is more of a bonus than a necessity. Coogan’s performance is uncanny, mimicking Laurel’s doofy facial expressions and vaudeville maneuvers with almost eerie skill, while Reilly disappears beneath a fat suit and beams tenderness throughout.

And yet every laugh is ultimately met with an unsettling sense of melancholy. Much more a drama than comedy, Stan & Ollie is an examination of failure and friendship, offering as a final thesis, simply, that it was fun while it lasted. That may have been enough for Oliver Hardy, but it’s hard not to be at least a little depressed for the pair. It’s harder still to shake that bittersweet taste after the movie ends.

Stan & Ollie
Director: Jon S. Baird
Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson
Rated: PG
Theater: Starts Friday, Uptown Theatre