Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy hold an unusual place in the pantheon of great movie clowns. They never had the ambitions of Chaplin or Keaton; they made many good films, but there's nothing on the scale of The Gold Rush, The General or even The Bank Dick in their filmography. One could even argue that their comic style is essentially one of passivity: They don't hang from buildings or leap across balconies, and performing a simple two-step is about as acrobatic as they get.
And while they're among the very few performers who crossed the barrier from silent films to talkies without even a hiccup — miraculously, their voices matched their images perfectly — they're neither purely visual or verbal. For the most part, they simply react, innocent babes in a world that never stops startling them. Yet somehow their simplicity is endearing. Audiences love them unconditionally simply for being who they are.
Stan & Ollie, written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird, is an unmistakably affectionate look at the comic legends in their later years, a warm portrait that shows the real men behind the on-screen images, while suggesting that the two aren't that easy to separate. Set in 1953, at the twilight of their careers, the film follows the pair through a tour of British music halls as they wait for financing for a new film. Challenged by an indifferent promoter and the eventual appearance of their protective, competitive spouses, they're haunted by a sense of decline, with Hardy (John C. Reilly) trying to ignore his failing health and Laurel (Steve Coogan) frustrated by the sense that they never reached their creative potential.
The historical details are reasonably accurate by movie standards, but Stan & Ollie is not a Hollywood biography. Its aim is not to tell the story of their lives but to explore their legacy. Details of their film career are handily summarized in a brief prologue set at the Hal Roach studio, which manages to establish their partnership and financial history but primarily serves as a way for Coogan and Reilly to recreate the irresistibly silly "At the Ball, That's All" dance routine from Way Out West. It's a brief moment, but enough to establish the film's real subject: the elusive, irresistible Laurel and Hardy chemistry.
Imitating Laurel and Hardy isn't particularly difficult — you can wink innocently like Stan or ruffle your tie with blustery outrage like Ollie — but Stan & Ollie, and Coogan & Reilly, goes further. Yes, both actors look and sound as much like their models as you could expect, Reilly heavily made-up to match Hardy's rotundity and Coogan soft-pedaling his usual self-assuredness to capture Laurel's ethereal, angelic naivety. But this isn't simple mimicry. It looks past the comic mannerisms to show two very real men who are acutely aware of their on-screen doppelgangers. Pope's script neatly inserts elements of the duo's comedy into the real world, as if the two aging men were being shadowed by their own pasts. A simple exit from a railroad station echoes one of their greatest shorts, "The Music Box," while another scene shows Laurel in an office waiting room, unable to resist performing simple gags in front of a receptionist who seems more alarmed than amused.
For anyone with even a casual notion of film history, there are no narrative surprises in Stan & Ollie. What Baird's movie offers instead is a sense of wonder, an artful analysis of the odd mixture of grace and outrage and comic nonsense that made the pair so unique. Coogan and Reilly capture the charm, the quick wit and even the occasional sense of discomfort that make their comedy so appealing. Beyond mere compatibility, they're inseparable, tied together (as the author of Waiting for Godot understood so well) whether they like it or not; two clowns looking for a straight man.