The performer biopic has come under a lot of scrutiny for being a genre that is bogged down by convention and cliché, hammering the lives of real people into the structure and pacing of a three-act narrative when real people’s lives are not nearly so clean or subject to closure. Ideally, this would inspire filmmakers to adopt a new approach to adapting these stories into narrative films, but we live in a world where Bohemian Rhapsody is not only one of the highest grossing films of the year but is likely to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, so clearly none of us is learning our lesson any time soon. That being said, though, there is still room for entertainment industry navel-gazing to be clever and fun, even as it succumbs to the general trappings of narrative shorthand, and it’s in this vein that Stan & Ollie manages to be a pretty enjoyable time, in no small part due to a couple of fantastic lead performances.
Those titular first names belong to Stan Laurel (Steven Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), performers of the post-vaudeville era who collaborated on over one-hundred films in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The film opens in 1937 in an impressive extended take that follows the pair through the studio lot as they bicker and joke their way to the set of their latest film, and it’s a striking bit of stage-setting that masks a direct look at their faces until we see them perform a classic dance for the camera. The film never quite reaches that same level of photography again, but it’s a brilliant prologue that deserves mention if only for its commitment to showing the pair at their height.
Flash forward to 1953, which is where the brunt of our story takes place. Laurel and Hardy are older and less in-demand, but they have mounted a tour across Britain with the goal of securing financing for a new film, drawing in audiences to demonstrate that they still have sufficient popularity to pull in a theatrical crowd. However, Hardy’s health is not what it used to be, and Laurel may not have as secure a hold on their cinematic future as he claims. This will of course test their friendship, and you can probably already see all the dramatic beats unfolding like dots begging to be connected into the shape of a giraffe. It was a smart narrative decision to shrink the focus down to the end of their careers instead of collapsing decades into ninety minutes, informing the tour's dramatic stakes through minimal flashback reveals, but the tale feels rote even before it’s begun in earnest.
What ultimately sells Stan & Ollie are Coogan’s and Reilly’s performances, which not only capture the charm of Laurel & Hardy’s routines but the natural grace of two old comedian friends constantly trying to make one another laugh as they workshop material and generally goof around. Coogan’s Laurel is idealistic but prone to carry a chip on his shoulder, a temperament that carries over into his performances in ways that Coogan makes transparent and enlightening of the real Stan Laurel’s character. Reilly, on the other hand, is no stranger to playing affable, well-meaning sidekicks, and his interpretation of Oliver Hardy is of a willing follower who acknowledges his weaknesses for gambling and salty food, yet is committed to putting on a show for the sake of friendship and being well-liked. The performance is assisted by an impressive make-up job that adds pounds to Reilly’s physique, but Reilly is a grand enough performer that he likely could have made his version of Hardy real without even needing to look much like him.
The resulting film is a bit on the predictable and clichéd side, but it’s also immensely entertaining to watch Coogan and Reilly perform classic bits and carry over those personas into realistic portrayals of what the daily life of Laurel and Hardy’s later years might have looked like. Stan & Ollie is a genuinely sweet and funny movie, and even if the story tickles along to a familiar tune, the ways in which its leads dance along to it makes for a grand ride down memory lane.