If there’s one thing that director Jon S. Baird’s ”Stan & Ollie” (Sony Pictures Classics/eOne/BBC Films) reminds us, it’s that comedy duos aren’t what they used to be.
The days of Abbott & Costello, Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis and Pryor & Wilder are long gone. The closest thing we have these days is Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. But even their shtick, as seen in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Bobby Ricky” and “Step Brothers”, wore painfully thin in the abysmal 2018 flop “Holmes & Watson”.
Fortunately, for Reilly he readily redeems himself in “Stan & Ollie”, even earning a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Beginning in the summer of 1937, when Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) were the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, we find the duo in their shared dressing room discussing finances. There are ex-wives and gambling debts (Hardy plays the horses) to worry about. Contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd make more because they “own their own pictures”. Both men agree that it’s time to renegotiate their contract with studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Needless to say that discussion doesn’t go well. Regardless, the movie they are making is another hit for the duo, as well as Roach.
Sixteen years later, after a personal rough patch, the pair arrives in Newcastle, England to begin their 1953 live performance tour. Delfont (Rufus Jones), the producer, appears distracted and indifferent. Regardless, Stan and Ollie are consummate professionals, and live up to their end of the bargain. Additionally, they are driven by the fact that they will be performing in London where the plan is to meet with a movie producer named Miffin, who has expressed interest in making their new movie about Robin Hood.
A pair of flashbacks also help to provide some background. A meeting Stan has with Fox Studio heads in Los Angeles, as well as a scene from around the same time involving “Zenobia”, a movie Oliver made for Roach with Harry Langdon (not Stan), set the stage for the temporary, multi-year dissolution of their creative partnership. However, back in Newcastle, it’s obvious how much they missed each other and how well they still work together.
Performing in the small Queen’s Hall theater space, to a house that is more than half-empty, Laurel and Hardy nevertheless win over the audience. The years, however, have taken their toll and the overweight Hardy’s knees bother him. Troopers that they are, they continue to perform for less than half-full audiences. Delfont suggests shortening the tour, but that means cutting out the London show and the chance for Miffin to see them in action. Instead, they agree to do a series of publicity events which results in the tour bringing in larger, sold out houses.
When Hardy’s wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Laurel’s wife Ida (Nina Arianda) arrive in London, things really get interesting. While neither of the women can stand the other, their concern and affection for their respective husbands is immediately obvious. This part of the movie contains some of the most touching sequences, especially as things begin to unravel. Miffin, as it turns out, is unable to raise the necessary finances for the movie, and only Stan knows the truth. The strain of performing is weighing on Ollie whose health is in rapid decline. At a post-show reception, old wounds are unexpectedly revealed, leading the men say things to each other that they will regret.
“Stan & Ollie” is ultimately about how attached two (straight) men can be without being intimate or a couple. Their hard-won reconciliation has a universality that many same-sex couples are sure to recognize.
The four lead performers – Reilly, Coogan, Henderson and Arianda – are all marvelous and do admirable work making these somewhat forgotten characters relevant again.