When his best friend Oliver Hardy died, Stan Laurel refused to act ever again. That simple insight explains the core of what makes Jon Baird‘s "Stan & Ollie" (Sony Classics, 12.28) a touching tribute to the legendary Hollywood duo. The film is about a lasting friendship in a line of work where friendships shouldn't exist, and backstabbing is supposed to happen, every inch of your moral compass being tossed out of the window for the sake of fame.
John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan play the iconic comedic duo, however the film isn't interested in their early to late ’30s cinematic heyday ("Pardon Us," "Bonnie Scotland," "Our Relations") — "Stan and Ollie" is more about a last hurrah tour of England and Ireland in 1953, which happened when they were in their early 60s and Hardy's weak heart was giving in.
The films hints at a nosedive in popularity that happened in the early 40s — in part due to studio politics, which led to a few box-office bombs and their commercial prospects shrinking. A few decades later, the British tour was going to be their comeback and, by all means, it did succeed in renewing the interest in Laurel and Hardy. Audiences grew and grew as word spread that the duo were back and still very funny.
Hardy, by all means, tried to continue the tour, despite doctor's warnings that he could very well die on-stage. Replacement performers were found to fill in, but Stan wanted none of that. The touching conclusion of this slight, understylized but heartfelt film, had me sold that, despite the narrative and tonal flaws, Baird's film captured the essence of what made Laurel and Hardy work so well on-camera: their need and love for each other.
Baird's film is too on-the-nose and conventionally told for its own good, but it makes you care quite a bit for these guys — mostly due to Reilly and Coogan's vibrant and humane performances. These are two highly underrated actors, both with a background in comedy, that deliver strongly commendable performances.