Movie review: 'Stan & Ollie' a joy-filled, well-acted Laurel and Hardy biopic

 
By Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press
Updated 1/11/2019 8:08 AM
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  • Comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan), left, and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) embark on a final act -- years past their showbiz prime -- in "Stan & Ollie."

    Comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan), left, and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) embark on a final act -- years past their showbiz prime -- in "Stan & Ollie." Courtesy of Sony Pictures

"Stan & Ollie" -- ★ ★ ★

There are a lot of movies in theaters right now trying to grab your attention, from big superhero spectacles to awards darlings. It's easy to get overwhelmed and when something like, say, a late-career Laurel and Hardy biopic comes along, you'd be forgiven for thinking it easy to dismiss, or at least put off.

But I'm here to tell you not to sleep on "Stan & Ollie." It is simply terrific -- an understated but smartly told crowd-pleaser about the legendary comedy duo in their last act, with wonderful production value, a sharp and surprisingly poignant script and brilliant performances from John C. Reilly, as Oliver Hardy, and Steve Coogan, as Stan Laurel.

Directed by Jon S. Baird ("Filth") off a script from Jeff Pope ("Philomena"), "Stan & Ollie" focuses in on the two during a last-gasp musical hall tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, 16 years after their prime, when most of the world had assumed the two had long-since retired.

There is a brief introduction of them at their peak working with Hal Roach (played by Danny Huston). They're laughing about ex-wives and money and declaring that they'll never get married again, or, as Laurel says, he's just going to find a woman he doesn't like and buy her a house. But there's a sign of trouble to come. Laurel's contract with Roach is up, and he's taking a meeting at another studio, expecting (and hoping) that Hardy will come along.

The film comes back to this pivotal break throughout, as we learn more and more about that rift and their lingering issues with one another and the seams of this showbiz-manufactured marriage start to show even as this performance tour gets more and more trying as it becomes evident that this is their last act. It's a rough go on the road at first, as they try to keep their spirits up even when performing to a half-full, second-rate theater (a lousy promoter has not done a good job educating the public that they're not retired).

Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) hides declining health as he and his comedy partner Stan Laurel take their act on the road in "Stan & Ollie."
Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) hides declining health as he and his comedy partner Stan Laurel take their act on the road in "Stan & Ollie." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Eventually they have to lower themselves to do a series of cheesy promos educating the public that yes, it is them and not some impersonators, which ends up working. Abbott and Costello might have been the big screen comedy duo of the moment, but it turns out there was still an audience for nostalgia.

And there is more at stake than just their ego -- Laurel has been hard at work on a Robin Hood movie that he hopes could be their big comeback, while Hardy is trying to mask his declining health. "Stan & Ollie" packs a surprising emotional punch as well, without ever delving into the sad clown sentimentality that you might expect.

Whatever is going on behind the scenes, in their friendship, their marriages, with their finances, these two seem to relish in delighting an audience, whether it's just one person (like, say, a hotel clerk) or a room of thousands. And Coogan and Reilly are at the top of their game, truly disappearing into the icons they're playing.

Baird and his performers have fun integrating well-worn bits (even the piano box!) into their daily life and Laurel and Hardy fans will have fun spotting them throughout. And don't worry if you're only passingly familiar with Laurel and Hardy -- their comedy is timeless.

• • •

Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Danny Huston

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. In limited release. Rated PG. 97 minutes

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