At the very end of their career, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) toured the UK, hoping to raise funds for a new film. They play small venues to dwindling crowds, along the way contemplating what it meant to perform and just what they actually owe to the other.
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play their parts expertly. Not only do they look the part, they have perfected two very distinct and immediately recognizable characters for the two men. The comedy bits work as well as they do only because of the commitment from the two men. The physicality and timing is flawless. An interesting aspect of their characterization is that they love performing, genuinely enjoy each other’s humour and take every opportunity to play to a crowd, even if it’s just a bored secretary or a group of kids on the street. It’s very endearing.
The film has a secret weapon, a second comedy duo in the form of Laurel and Hardy’s wives. Shirley Henderson gives a typically frail but forceful performance as Lucille Hardy, who desperately worries about her husband’s failing health. Nina Arianda steals every scene she is in as Ida Kitaeva Laurel, Laurel’s no-nonsense wife who speaks her mind in hilarious monosyllabic outbursts. The two offset each other beautifully and you’re left wanting to see more of the strange pair.
There’s a surprising darkness to the story. There’s a deep sense throughout that these are men out of their time, left behind a world racing ahead into the future. They continue to write material that they suspect they will never perform. When talking of their career, there’s the sense of the autopsy to it, trying to figure out how they went wrong. Although this is a very sentimental film (sometimes cloyingly so) it is unafraid to show these men at their most glib and hopeless.
Stan and Ollie is a surprisingly melancholy story of two men whose glory days are long behind them. The affection between them is beautiful, as is the tension. It’s a superbly well acted, if sometimes cartoonish, portrait of two of the finest comedy performers who ever lived.