Famous comedians out of the limelight present a paradox: We know they’re funny, but we haven’t seen them around in a while, so we presume they’re either retired or dead—or both!
Stan & Ollie knows this, yet never figures out how to handle it. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars in the 1930s, much to the delight of studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston). But director Jon S. Baird’s film is not about their heyday; instead, it focuses on the duo’s 1953 stage tour of the United Kingdom, long after they faded from glory on the big screen.
Coogan and Reilly are good in the title roles, but the movie is uneven and never dramatically interesting. It does have a few laughs, though not as many as you’d expect from a movie about (arguably) the funniest comedy team in film history. Part of the problem is that too much of the drama is referenced, but not seen. The premise allows for ample flashbacks that, curiously, never come.
For example, we know it was a contract dispute with the uber-cheap Roach that led to the duo’s split. Stan’s contract was up but Ollie’s wasn’t, and though Ollie desperately needed money, he did not stand firm with Stan when Stan negotiated. Stan went to Fox (and for a time thought Ollie was joining him), but his career fizzled, as did Ollie’s. Together they were gold; apart, not so much. We see all of this, but we don’t see the aftermath: The disappointment of a partner deserting you, how the public reacted to their split, how it went when they spoke again, how and why they reunited, etc. Instead, we go from 1937 to 1953, and they’re together in England, not discussing the past except for one dramatic scene. So much is implied, so little is shown.
Kudos to Reilly and Coogan for capturing the chemistry of Stan and Ollie so well, though. There are moments in which they’re talking or checking into a hotel, and they effortlessly, unconsciously, start one of their routines. It was second nature to them: two peas from the same pod, meant to be together and incomplete when they’re apart.
A more interesting movie would’ve focused on the 1930s, their rise to success and their eventual parting of ways, with only the wrap-up at the end depicting the U.K. tour. What’s here, written by Jeff Pope, seems to barely scratch the surface of what made this successful team tick.
The best thing about Stan & Ollie is the makeup. Mark Coulier and Jeremy Woodhead do exceptional work bulking Reilly up to Ollie’s portly proportions, and Coogan has minor alterations to look more like Stan. Too bad there’s not a stronger story to make better use of their performances. Only someone curious to learn more about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy should see this film, and even then you’re better off opening a book.