Though it’s been more than half a century since they were last on stage, Laurel and Hardy remain history’s archetypal double act, the pair somehow still regarded by most as the funniest men ever to have dropped a piano down the stairs.
Stan & Ollie, a cheerful biopic focused on the pair’s last tour around the UK and Ireland, is a reminder of just why they have such a cherished place in the nation’s hearts. John S Baird’s film is set during the twilight of their careers, long after their collective star had faded, and shortly before they packed everything in, when younger stars like Abbott & Costello were rising up to replace them. They find themselves closer to one another than to even their wives, but in as prickly a relationship as any married couple.
The unhurried plot doesn’t try to insert too much drama where there might have been none, dealing instead with their deteriorating health, and simmering, unresolved resentment. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are perfectly cast, playing the duo with just the right degree of reverence, and lending emotional heft to what could easily have been a series of caricatures.
Coogan is especially brilliant as Laurel, the more complex and writerly of the two and the brains behind the skits. Reilly, on the other hand, is jovial and laid-back as Hardy. It’s testament to their portrayal that in the few scenes where these symbiotic comics are separated, they seem diminished, like they’ve physically shrunk.
Films about funny people don’t tend to be very funny, and most of Laurel and Hardy’s routines have aged badly, but Stan & Ollie navigates its subjects well. There’s a gentle humour to be found in watching this unshakably good-natured pair prat about. Both are consistently, disarmingly amusing by default, their one-liners harkening back to an age of more naive comedy. “Don’t worry about Stanley, he got himself a new job mending broken biscuits,” is somehow far funnier than anything I’ve seen on Mock the Week.
Stan & Ollie’s portrait of the duo is bittersweet and human, but avoids painting them as overly damaged or sad. It’s a celebration of a partnership, a magical and funny tribute to a pair of comic legends, and shows Coogan and Reilly at their absolute best.