‘Stan and Ollie’ is an engaging throwback with stellar acting

What you see on the stage is often not what you get behind the scenes. When it came to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the most famous comedy duo of all time, there was much more behind the curtain than most people knew about, which makes great fodder for a cinematic retelling. Enter Stan and Ollie.

Jon S. Baird’s new film covers the pair’s final stage tour through post-war Britain, a grueling stretch that tested their already frayed friendship and in some cases, their health.

Like Darkest Hour did with Winston Churchill, Stan and Ollie enlightened me on a pair of famous figures that I only knew by name. When you get high-caliber acting from the likes of Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Hardy), it’s easy for one to toss the books and newspaper articles aside and just escape into a theater for a couple hours.

In covering their swan song trek, Baird brings out the honest poignancy of their working relationship. Laurel was a perfectionist who couldn’t turn his brain off and warded off most human interaction off stage that wasn’t aiding his work, and Hardy was the talented and more gentle soul who just liked the work, yet didn’t care much for Laurel’s constant theatrics. Together on a stage, they were impeccable. Once it went dark, so did their interactions.

The result is a highly enjoyable comedy with some depth, crafting a provocative story about the rigors, joys, and neverending costs of a life in show business. This is done without beating you over the head with long-winded speeches, endless dread, and dark colors. Jeff Pope’s deft script provides the ingredients for Coogan and Reilly to knock their lead roles out of the park, imbuing Stan and Ollie with a realistic vigor other actors would have gotten lost trying to locate.

Nina Arianda (superb on Amazon’s Goliath) and Shirley Henderson are equally great as the women in these men’s lives, while Rufus Jones has a few good scenes as their skeptical manager. Danny Huston never wastes an opportunity to own a chunk of the screen, and he does here in a couple scenes.

The movie belongs to Coogan and Reilly. This may be the best role yet for the former, who has cut a fine line in previous films, but never found quite the role like Laurel. It’s not a surprise to tell you Reilly produces his second act of brilliance in a matter of months. Following his work with a character carrying similar values to Hardy in The Sisters Brothers, the seasoned comedy-drama performer shows us the fragile beating heart of a gifted man who couldn’t outrun his own mortality.

I went into the film with no expectations and little sleep. By the time I left, I was googling things and thinking about the cutthroat life of the industry back then. I was asking questions and seeking answers.

At their best, biopics open the doors in your head about a historical figure, creating a desire in yourself to seek out more information.

Stan and Ollie did just that. If you like comedies that manage to make you feel something, go check it out.

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