It takes a brave director to tackle a biography of Laurel and Hardy. To be blunt, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, a lot of their stuff is still funny, so any portrayal of them, however good, is doomed to be not quite as good as the original. Unlike somebody like Chaplin, whose style of humour is so out of fashion that it could all but be ignored when making a film about him, parts of Laurel and Hardy’s act still resonate with a modern audience, but is impossible to recreate. It was a smart decision then, to concentrate on the end of their career when they themselves were not quite as fresh or as quick as they had been at their peak. And Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do a solid job of representing latter years Laurel and Hardy, slowed by age and tempered by resentments. It was a nice touch too that their funniest moments came not during the recreations from their tour of greatest hits but when their clowning and their real life overlapped, like when Stan Laurel, forced to wait indefinitely for a non-appointment with a potential producer, starts doing a routine with his hat.
But the double act that makes the film is not Coogan and Reilly but Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel. Not only do they steal every scene they are in (they have most of the funniest lines of the film and share the moment that affected me the most emotionally) they also bring the best out of Coogan and Reilly, who both have their most interesting and heartfelt scenes with their screen wives. Both allies and rivals, they could easily have been portrayed unsympathetically, but they are the real heart of the film. I would have liked a bit more of them. A film of their journey across the Atlantic is one I would queue to see.
Overall the film is perhaps a tad too respectful, a tad too traditional (even having a scene where a character’s thoughts are previous lines in the film played aloud as the camera is focused on their face in a, “Is there a chance the track could bend?” style) but it earns its ending and has more than a few great moments along the way. If you still haven’t seen The Favourite, you should definitely see that first, but if you have, Stan and Ollie is well worth your time.