You don’t need any more than a passing familiarity with old-timey comedy duo Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Stan & Ollie, a loving biopic set primarily during a U.K. tour in 1953, years after their heyday and some time after they’d had a falling-out. You should have some L&H movies on hand, though, because Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly’s affectionate impersonations will make you want to dive into the real thing. If inspiring appreciation for its subject is the loftiest thing a biopic can do, then the wholesome and delightful “Stan & Ollie” is one of the most successful in recent memory.
Directed by relative newcomer Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Jeff Pope (Philomena), our story has a dazzling backstage prologue set in 1937, when prickly beanpole Stan Laurel (Coogan) and easy-going plus-sized Oliver Hardy (Reilly) are at the height of their fame working for producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), who has shrewdly diminished their bargaining power as a team by signing them to separate contracts that keep most of their films’ profits in his own hands. Residual soreness over something that happens as a result of this still lingers 16 years later, when Stan and Ollie reunite for a series of live performances in second-rate venues across England. They’re still recognized everywhere they go, but it’s often in the context of “I thought you had retired!” or “You’re still doing this?” and does not often lead to ticket sales.
Those old hard feelings don’t get in the way at first, though, and one of the film’s many pleasures is its portrayal of two old pros who enjoy one another’s company and like performing together. Stan calls Ollie “Babe” because it used to be his stage name, but it feels like a term of endearment, too. They’re in their early 60s in 1953, with Oliver dangerously overweight, but they remain lithe, nimble slapstickers. They love their work so much that they perform even when they’re not onstage, doing a brief comedy bit while checking into a hotel for the benefit of no one but the desk clerk. Subpar lodgings and small theaters don’t offend their egos; they’re just worried that it won’t paint an encouraging picture to the movie producer who’s supposed to catch a show and hopefully make a film with them.
The old comedy skits and bits recreated in the film are charming (and funny, which recreations seldom are), expertly performed by actors whose admiration for the people they’re portraying is palpable. They’re aided by makeup and prosthetics, but Coogan and Reilly also nail L&H’s voices, mannerisms, and talents. When C&R appear onstage as L&H, they’re not just copying them — they’re re-performing the sketches, molding their own talents into the shape of L&H’s. It wouldn’t work if Coogan and Reilly weren’t comedically gifted in their own right.
Other nice touches abound. Oliver and Stan are joined on the tour by their wives — soft-spoken sweetheart Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and brusque Russian Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) — whose bickering threatens to turn them into a comedy duo of their own. But the film is all about the collaboration and friendship between Stan and Oliver, which becomes unexpectedly sweet and emotional. Oliver is a friendly bear of a man, quick to laugh at Stan’s clowning and praise his clever ideas, while Stan is more reticent in his compliments. “You loved ‘Laurel and Hardy’ but you never loved me,” says a wounded Ollie late in the film. Stan’s reaction to this reveals a heart and soul as generous as Oliver’s, cementing the two as an iconic pair who truly belonged together.