Review: Two Sharp Performances Create Comedy Magic in Stan & Ollie

In an odd sort of way, Stan & Ollie, a film that covers the later-period career of film stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, suffers from some of the same shortcomings as Bohemian Rhapsody, while ultimately begging the same question: is it more important to capture the spirit of the subject or the 100 percent historical accuracy of their existence? In some cases, history isn’t particularly cinematic or dramatically engaging, but unlike the Queen film, Stan & Ollie’s factual digressions are forgivable and don’t betray the importance and legacy of these comedy legends.

If for no other reason, you'll go to see Stan & Ollie for the two lead performances. It’s almost impossible to watch Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in these roles and not be impressed, even bowled over, by their attention to detail. Reilly’s makeup and body work is sensational, but I was particularly struck by the more subtle facial expressions and physical nuances that Coogan pulls off. At first you can’t decide who’s more impressive, but in the end, you'll give over to them both and let the story pull you through.

Stan & Ollie Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film follows the pair as they are forced to transition their talents away from the big screen, working for producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and fighting for better pay while being nudged into the history books by younger acts. The film portrays Stan as the creative force and constant writer of bits, while Oliver embraces the role of the pompous buffoon in the act. After a bit of a falling out (during which Hardy takes on a new partner), the team are convinced that they still have legions of fans in the UK and agree to embark on a nationwide tour, adapting their work for the stage—a tour that, by all accounts, was quite successful. The film opts to portray the start of the tour as rocky and ill-attended (thanks in large part to an under-enthused tour manager, played by Rufus Jones), but once the boys get in the spirit of the event and even make appearances to promote upcoming shows, things start to pick up.

The tour has a special value to Stan, in particular, who is writing a Robin Hood film parody for them to do when they return stateside. But every time he reaches the studio to check on arrangements for that project, he gets more discouraged. The promise of the film is a big part of what’s keeping Laurel and Hardy going, and even if Stan needs to tell white lies to his partner, he’s going to keep it alive in their minds. 

The way Stan & Ollie treats the character's wives is actually quite wonderful. Nina Arianda plays Ida Laurel, a former performer and formidable force in Stan’s life but also a trusted advisor who cuts through the fog of fame and the empty promises of Hollywood to make a fair assessment of her husband’s career. She adores and respects him, but most importantly, she protects him. Hardy, on the other hand, is portrayed as a man in love with love, and his latest wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) is a bit more suspicious of the Laurels and the needy public. She seems mostly concerned with Oliver’s failing health and the toll that the very physical live shows are taking on him. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie are when these two women are involved, either separately or together.

But the highlight of the film is easily the re-creations of the stage show themselves, which are exercises in timing, choreography and making some of the most perfectly choreographed moments in physical comedy look effortless. It was their specialty, after all. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope seem to share a fan-like obsession with seeing these routines done to perfection and the result borders on magical, to the point where I might question someone’s sanity if they weren’t impressed. There’s more to Stan & Ollie than just those moments, but they make up a rather large portion of the work, to the point where being drawn into those moments may determine whether you enjoy the film at all. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of their personal and business disputes (as many have), but I don’t believe any of those elements betray the worthy and long-lasting Laurel & Hardy legacy that this film seeks to pay tribute to.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.