Somewhere, embedded within the raucous, irresistible comedy of the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy, lies a parable about the bond of brotherhood. Through the daredevil shenanigans and harebrained schemes, a real love was palpable. Laurel and Hardy may not have been related by blood, but they completed each other like soulmates. While Laurel contented himself playing the affable doofus, Hardy made an excellent foil as his surly, burly running buddy. Like so many brotherly relationships, theirs was frayed by simmering anger, quiet jealousy, and words left unsaid. Stan & Ollie paints the lives of Laurel and Hardy across a vivid canvas of color, swathed with a single stripe of gray.
Much of the story takes place in the early 50s, when the rubble of World War II and the rise of television rendered the benign, Vaudevillian flair of Laurel and Hardy anachronistic. They tour the United Kingdom, dutifully playing before half-full houses and staying in low-rent hotels. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) desperately attempts to drum up enough publicity to fund another movie, while Oliver “Babe” Hardy (John C. Reilly) huffs and puffs his way through the duo’s draining stage routine. Their wives (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, respectively) join them for the tour, bringing their frustration for each other and their spouse’s partner in tow. Things get tense backstage, as career stagnation and marital difficulties begin to expose old wounds and peck at raw nerves.
More than anything, Stan & Ollie functions as an open cinematic love letter. The spot-on performances of Coogan and Reilly pay respectful homage to the iconic mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy, while bringing depth and humanity to the men themselves. The makeup and prosthetics for Reilly’s transformation into Oliver Hardy are absolutely staggering. Coogan captures the manic energy of a true comedian, always looking for his next great bit. Both performers vanish completely into their characters. Classic skits are meticulously recreated, and every punchline gets delivered with perfection. The film flawlessly recreates a bygone Hollywood era, giving movie fans a visual feast.
It’s been said that you can add meaning to anything by accepting its temporary nature. Stan & Ollie is an affectionate homage about two gentle souls who tried to recreate the magic of their glory years one last time. Their love sometimes took the form of a smirk or a firm slap to the forehead, but it nonetheless endured. Through dreams that went south and marriages that went sour, Laurel and Hardy would always come back to each other to make another fine mess. Stan & Ollie is funny and ultimately moving because it bottles up the gentle brilliance and genuine affection that made this duo so great in the first place.
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