Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie offers a mild portrait of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy’s (John C. Reilly) tour of the United Kingdom in the early 1950s. By this point in their careers, the actors had been performing for decades, appearing in hundreds of features and shorts. And their famous bits—like the one in which Laurel wreaks havoc on Hardy’s hospital room—had become cemented in several generations’ memories, leading to their being taken more than a little for granted. The tour is meant to net Laurel and Hardy a contract for a new film, a comedic Robin Hood, and one of the most poignant recurring moments involves Laurel sharing with Hardy his ideas for new scenes, which are mostly variations of old bits. Somewhat subtly, then, we’re allowed to understand that these icons’ best days are behind them—an impression that’s intensified by their tour’s initial failure to fill up theaters.
Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope clearly love Laurel and Hardy, and this love is both Stan & Ollie‘s great liability and chief strength. The measured caution of the film cuts both ways: The filmmakers’ refusal to indulge in shrill, lurid melodrama—common of biopics of washed-up celebrities—is laudable, though their good taste also neuters the narrative. Once we’ve discerned that Laurel and Hardy are fooling themselves and one another about their career prospects, and that they know they’re practicing such deception (a realization that’s inherent from roughly the third scene on), there’s nowhere for Stan & Ollie to go. Throughout, Baird repetitively affirms the protagonists’ wayward misery in terms that won’t upset the applecart of the film’s gentleness.
A comparison to another recent biopic of a struggling artist, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, doesn’t do Stan & Ollie any favors. Heller offers specific details of her protagonist’s work practices, addiction issues, and fears of failure, and shows how all those dimensions coalesce into an artistic sensibility, without dispelling the essential mystery of human personality. Baird doesn’t provide such details about Laurel and Hardy, who exist in a generic void. While we see portions of their routines, Laurel and Hardy are never shown rehearsing or either directing themselves or being directed, as the new tour seems to sprout from out of nowhere like a mushroom.
Though Laurel and Hardy are implied to be alcoholics, Baird never considers how alternating states of drunkenness and sobriety have affected their performances and personal lives, apart from a few gentle admonishments from their respective spouses, Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson). And their politics, or, really, their convictions in anything, are also largely left up to the audience’s imagination.
However, the film does feature performances of exceptional grace and generosity. Coogan, a talented actor whose work can curdle into smugness, opens up as Laurel, lacing his acidity with gentleness and truly syncing up with Reilly, who correspondingly spikes his gentleness with acidity. In Stan & Ollie‘s best moments, the filmmakers’ aversion to histrionics gives the actors something to play off of: an atmosphere of genial passive-aggression that prevents Laurel and Hardy from saying what they mean.
When they finally air their resentments, largely over Hardy’s refusal to combat Hal Roach (Danny Huston) when the duo was at its prime, their fight resonantly fails to climax. The men have gotten to a point where their anger is inchoately matter-of-fact, and their antagonistic bits have become an ironically paradisiacal vision of friendship. The rigidity of their routines represents a vision of unflagging devotion, and this understanding is physicalized when Laurel crawls into Hardy’s sick bed and holds his hand, exploding the subtext of their hospital room routine. In such scenes, Stan & Ollie shows how the private and personal dimensions of art are achingly inseparable.