Stan & Ollie
Opening Friday, Jan. 25
Stan & Ollie, the buzzy new biographical film about legendary Hollywood double act Laurel & Hardy, is a perfect example of a rabbit-hole movie. This isn’t a two-hour commitment; it’s four hours, at least, because you’ll wind up diving into the internet afterward to read up on the history of it all.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are perfectly cast in the lead roles of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the comedy team that powered dozens of movies in classic Hollywood. For anyone interested in the evolution of American comedy, it’s fascinating material. Squint hard enough, and you can draw a direct line from Laurel’s slapstick choreography to Michael Richards’s physical comedy as Kramer on Seinfeld.
After a brief prologue, the movie focuses on the duo’s waning days trudging through a modest U.K. music-hall tour. We learn that the pair’s famous onstage dynamic was actually a weird inversion of their backstage relationship. Little Stan was the alpha overachiever, forever pushing big Ollie into escalating predicaments. But the bond between the two was so much more than that. Stan & Ollie plays like a romance, really, as obstacles emerge to threaten the duo’s friendship and genius-level creative partnership. And, as in a romance, we’re desperate for them to stay together.
Coogan and Reilly are brilliant, and each delivers a master class on subtle physicality. Watch how Coogan incorporates Laurel’s signature onstage bits into his offstage movements. Watch Reilly’s big-man grace. These two deserve every statuette tossed their way this awards season.
Halfway through Stan & Ollie, an amazing thing happens. Unexpectedly, the duo’s wives show up, and a second double-act is added to the bill. Veteran actors Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda absolutely crush the usually thankless spouse roles and give the film new facets of humor and heart. Their performances generate a kind of exponential quality, as the various relationships fractal off into rounded elegance.
Screenwriter Jeff Pope doesn’t dig too deep into his characters’ dark sides, although we get some glimpses of boozing and gambling. But that’s on purpose. This is a tribute film, selective and affectionate. For additional context and some great stories—well, pencil in a couple of extra hours for clicking around the old Wikipedia rabbit hole.