The end of the calendar year always brings with it a movie or two or five that celebrate artistic endeavor, especially moviemaking.
I’ve come to look askance at these offerings as transparent awards-season engineering, but 10 minutes into Stan & Ollie (released in New York and L.A. in time for Oscar consideration), I didn’t care about any of that, and was just glad to be watching it.
This is a funny, affectionate and surprisingly touching film that examines the creative partnership between Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) by focusing on a theatrical tour of England that occurred near the end of their legendary run in Hollywood, which saw them costarring in more than 100 features and shorts in some 30 years, and on stage.
The movie fudges some of the history — it suggests a substantial rift (and separation) between the two men, arising from Laurel’s contract dispute with movie producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) that led Hardy to shoot a comedy with another costar.
In fact, the two men had been working together steadily through the 1940s and early ’50s, even if they were no longer the megastars they had been in the ’30s. Still, when they embarked on the theatrical tour of England (the movie dates it to 1953), Stan & Ollie is right to suggest they didn’t know how they would be received by postwar audiences accustomed to television (and Abbott and Costello, as the movie wryly notes).
What’s always deeply credible in Stan & Ollie is the profound connection between these two artists — their creative fluency, the suggestion of a shared history both fruitful and difficult.
To American audiences, Coogan is mostly noted for playing versions of Steve Coogan, but here he delivers a performance that captures Laurel’s (famous) mannerisms and transcends them for a fuller profile of Laurel as the duo’s tireless writer and thinker. He arrives in England with his typewriter. Hardy arrives with his golf clubs, cigars, flask, and bankroll. While Laurel is writing new material, Hardy is looking at the racing form and placing bets.
Laurel naturally resents doing most of the heavy creative lifting, but his feelings are complex. Hardy, we see, is his muse. Laurel doesn’t write in spite of his partner, but because of him — he understands how his own impish persona bounces so perfectly off of Hardy’s, large, exasperated frame. Their complementary energy (beautifully played by both actors) is endless source of inspiration.
It’s worth nothing here that Coogan and Reilly have their own experience with comedy partnership — Coogan with the films he’s made with Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Trip), Reilly through his famous partnership with Will Ferrell (most recently Holmes & Watson). You can sense their respect for the astonishing length and breadth of what Laurel and Hardy were able to accomplish, and they bring a palpable appreciation of the fondness and inevitable frictions that arise from intense collaboration.
Support is top-notch — Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Lucille Hardy and Ida Kitaeva Laurel, with their own relationship to work out, and Rufus Jones as the unctuous agent whose efforts on behalf of the Laurel and Hardy are directly in proportion to their box office receipts.
What a great year this has been for music in movies (also opening this week: Cold War). Even in that context, it’s hard to top Reilly as Hardy, after a heart-attack, taking the stage for one last song and dance with Laurel.
Directed by Jon S. Baird. With John C. Reilly. Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson and Rufus Jones. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parents' guide: PG (some language, smoking)