This is an affecting story of two famous comedians’ career decline, leavened with many of their classic routines. It’s nicely told and charming to watch.
The two, of course, are Laurel & Hardy, mega-stars of short films and feature movies between 1920 and 1940. Played here by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, respectively, they are introduced on the Hal Roach Studios lot in 1937 as the pair are working on the set of “Way Out West,” arguably their most popular film. There is some tension between the two about their staggered contracts with the studio and with Roach himself.
Then the story shifts forward 16 years, when Stan and Ollie arrive in England for a series of live performances. They are older, and their popularity has faded; the plan is to wow audiences and build interest in a new Robin Hood-based film script that will revive their careers.
The indignities — dingy rooming houses, small venues with empty seats, an oily promoter — do not dissuade the two. The job of performers is to perform, after all. They are good-natured and submit to silly promotions that generate good will. By the time they arrive in London, Laurel & Hardy are selling out the 2,000-seat Lyceum Theatre and staying at the Savoy.
Interwoven into the tale are multiple repetitions of various pieces that actors Coogan and Reilly recreate very nicely. Laurel & Hardy worked in a day when physical comedy, facial expressions and silly mixups were popular, and these are still amusing today.
The men’s wives, two very different women, add to the fun when they arrive in London. Ida Lauren (Nina Arianda) needles Stan in real life as Ollie does on stage, and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) is devoted to Oliver. Both marriages, like the relationship between the comedians, are comfortable and generous at heart.
At one point, Stan and Ollie fight about a possibly manufactured-for-the-script old resentment, and then Ollie’s knee and heart give out.
None of the tension rises to violence or even curse words, which may be true to the time or reflect that the film was written by an Englishman (Jeff Pope), directed by a Scot (Jon S. Baird) and filmed by the BBC.
If you can take a gentle, thoughtful movie that is humorous and sweet-but-not-saccharine-sweet, you might like this one.
There are many Laurel & Hardy shorts and movies on Youtube. “Stan & Ollie” features a famous scene from 1932’s County Hospital.
Hardy’s iconic line, “Well, here’s another nice mess ….” does appear in the movie but not until rather late in the show.
Both men had several marriages, which along with Hardy’s fondness for gambling and Laurel’s for alcohol may have strained their financial situations.
Early on, Hardy swears he will not marry again but instead will find a woman he doesn’t like and buy her a house. This got a great laugh in the theater, but is generally credited to Lewis Grizzard, an Atlanta columnist who wrote it many decades later.