At the opening of Stan & Ollie, a charming, bittersweet snapshot of the final days of the Hollywood slapstick duo Laurel & Hardy, the two comedy legends are in their dressing room complaining about being overworked and underpaid. It’s 1937, and the pair are at the height of their box office popularity. As they’re called to the set, a gliding camera tracks them while they stroll through a studio lot buzzing with cowboys and showgirls on their smoke breaks. It’s a virtuoso glimpse inside the engine room of the Dream Factory that will thrill the Turner Classics crowd that the movie is aimed at.
It’s also, in a sense, the last risk that director Jon S. Baird (2014’s Filth) will take in this charmingly nostalgic but otherwise by-the-numbers drama. Goosed by a pair of affecting and uncanny performances by Steve Coogan (as the slim, jug-eared Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (as the tubby straight man Oliver Hardy, whose chins have chins), the film is sentimental, a bit schmaltzy, but it’s an affecting behind-the-curtain look at a strained showbiz marriage that fans never got a chance to see.
Set mostly in 1953, when the two attempted a comeback in Great Britain, Stan & Ollie is a story of wounded egos and the fickleness of fame with a deep sadness coursing beneath all of its sight gags. Still, the reason that this old-fashioned movie works as well as it does is the transformative commitment of its two leads. They’re both clowns crying on the inside, who, despite years of resentment, know they’re more than partners; they’re uneasy soul mates stuck in one last “fine mess” together. B
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