The biopic “Stan & Ollie” arrived Friday, Feb. 15, at the M.V. Film Center, and what a pleasure to see a film about this old-time comic team at work. It’s especially true because of spot-on performances by Steve Coogan, an Oscar nominee for “Philomena,” as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly, an Oscar nominee for “Chicago,” as Oliver Hardy. Jon S. Baird directed, working from A.J. Marriott’s book, “Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours.” Critics have suggested that the two inspired Thomas Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Laurel and Hardy are among the world’s best slapstick comedy teams, certainly during the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and ’40s. A Brit, Laurel was seemingly goofy and childlike, while the American Hardy, also called “Babe,” was a pompous, oversize bully. They appeared in 107 movies, including 23 full-length features. Their humor was largely based on the conflicts they had with each other. An example of the kind of silliness they engaged in is Laurel’s comment, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led.”
The film focuses not on the height of their career together, but its last days. At the opening in 1937, the viewer sees them chatting in their dressing room about their ex-wives and alimony. They head out through the studio lot and into the sound stage for their film, “Way Out West.” Laurel bargains unsuccessfully with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) for a larger portion of profits. Then, 16 years later, the two are touring second-class theaters in England and Ireland, hoping to make enough money for their next film, “Rob ’Em Good,” based on Robin Hood. As viewers learn about their relationship, they are also treated to some of the team’s funniest routines. In one, Laurel visits Hardy in a hospital, and after offering a hard-boiled egg to him, proceeds to eat it after producing a salt shaker. In another skit, they carry a trunk up a set of stairs, only to have it slip down to the bottom, where they decide to abandon it. Their relationship grows more complicated when Hardy develops heart problems, and their wives, Ida Laurel (Nina Aranda), and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), arrive and have their own clashes.
As interesting as it may be to see how the two manage their decline, the frictions that develop between them, and to learn about their last years together, the best fun is to watch their signature skits. For the many filmgoers unfamiliar with Laurel and Hardy, “Stan & Ollie” should inspire a trip into the media archives to watch their wonderful, still hilarious films.