For laughs: Stan & Ollie gets real about screen partners and friendship

Steve Coogan is Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Hardy in Stan & Ollie, a straight take on the comedy duo’s personal and professional relationship. Image: SONY PICTURES CLASSICS Steve Coogan is Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Hardy in Stan & Ollie, a straight take on the comedy duo’s personal and professional relationship. Image: SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of the great comedy pairings of Hollywood’s Golden Age, bringing vaudeville sensibilities to audiences around the world. A classic partnering of a physically mismatched pair—one an innocent fool, the other an arrogant straight man—they sold their gags with sincerity and perfect timing. Even if you saw a punchline coming, you’d still be delighted by it.

Stan & Ollie follows the famous duo (Steve Coogan as Laurel, John C. Reilly as Hardy) on a reunion tour of the UK, 16 years after their split under less than ideal circumstances—Hardy, under contract with Hal Roach, made a film with a different partner after Laurel was fired over pursuit of a raise and ownership of their films. With the tour comes the promise of a new film and a reignition of the dynamic that led to creative and commercial success in previous decades. After a rocky start, the pair finds its groove and delights audiences, riffing on possible material for the big movie. But old wounds do not simply heal with time, and opportunities in show business can disappear as quickly as they arrive, forcing the two to face reality and one another.

The film and performances are lovingly designed with the duo’s legacy and humanity in mind. Director Jon S. Baird avoids the pitfalls of lesser films that examine the souls of comedians—overemphasizing their pain and depicting their humor as an expression of internal anguish. As depicted here, Stan and Ollie are professionals with relatively normal ambitions who take their art seriously, but do not sacrifice themselves at its altar. The main focus of the movie is on the relationship between the two, and whether it was a genuine friendship or just another job with a happy face. All of the jokes, the laughter, the entertainment—was there a real connection behind it, or was it just a fortuitous and profitable pairing made by Hal Roach?

The film’s good nature is a refreshing change of pace from other behind-the-scenes exposés that sensationalize intimate details. The married couples actually love one another, people’s vices do not consume them, and the lingering resentment is a very human one to which many of us can relate. Stan and Ollie are both intelligent, respectable people who care as much about the audience’s enjoyment as their bottom line. There’s not much more to the film than this.

When Coogan and Reilly inhabit Laurel and Hardy as humans, they’re terrific. When they emulate their performances, it begins to feel more like imitation than dramatization. There’s not much benefit to watching these scenes instead of the original clips, and when the curtain is pulled back, other moving parts begin to show. With questions of when Stan will reveal the truth about the film’s financing, and the long overdue argument that finally erupts, you begin to wonder if that’s how it all really happened—and when this moment comes in a fact-based drama, that’s when it all falls apart.

Stan & Ollie is a pleasant film made by talented people who genuinely care about the subject matter. Unfortunately, if you’re not already a devoted Laurel and Hardy fan, you may find it difficult to become invested in this tribute.

Stan & OlliePG, 97 minutes

Violet Crown Cinema

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Alamo Drafthouse Cinema –February 2

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Image: Columbia Pictures.








Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056,  

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000