There's a poignant moment in Stan & Ollie, the tribute to comedy icons Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, when a studio receptionist doesn't recognize Laurel. Forgetting his name and overlooking his aging face, she refuses to let him see her boss. Though her ignorance is depressing, it's counterbalanced by the knowledge that this film will introduce the entertainment legends to a new generation.
And what an introduction. Featuring uncannily transportive performances by Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy, Stan & Ollie is one of the most magical films of the last year. Focusing on the duo's 1953-1954 theatrical tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the film is both an epilogue to two legendary careers and an intimate portrait of friendship.
And though it takes a while to find its footing, features a lighthearted score that sometimes belies its serious side and only scratches the surface of a complicated relationship, most of the picture is orchestrated with precision, right down to the "Lonesome Pine" harmony, necktie flips and lovable head scratches.
With just two previous films to his credit, Scottish director Jon S. Baird can't claim the name recognition of his subjects, but he shares their sensibility. Filmed from a script by Jeff Pope (who penned Philomena with Coogan), Baird's movie is a tight, funny and charming 97 minutes. In fact, its only stylistic indulgence is a stunning, nearly seven-minute tracking shot that takes us on a tour of a 1937 Hollywood backlot. Depicting the heyday of Laurel and Hardy, it's a nice contrast with the rest of the movie, which is set 16 years later. Yet even in this scene, we get glimpses of the events and character flaws that will fuel the film's darker moments.
There's no denying Coogan and Reilly's chemistry, love for their characters and dedication to their craft, but it's their hair and makeup that complete the illusion. Still, they never degenerate into mimicry. They simply are Laurel and Hardy.
Yet the film also has room for three memorable supporting performances: Shirley Henderson as Hardy's doting wife, Nina Arianda as Laurel's headstrong spouse and Rufus Jones as a selfish, money-obsessed tour promoter. But even he, upon seeing Laurel and Hardy perform, is obliged to confess what I too was thinking while watching Coogan and Reilly: "It's moments like this that make me love this industry. Madness. Beautiful madness."
The oddest aspects of Stan & Ollie are – spoiler alert! – the exaggeration of a professional feud from the late 1930s and a reimagining of the end of the 1954 tour. Regarding the latter revisionism, if the script had stuck to reality, the duo's career would have finished abruptly in Plymouth, England, after Hardy's health declined.
But, to paraphrase a passage from Joe Wright's Atonement: What sense of hope or satisfaction could viewers derive from an ending like that? So, instead, the film gives them what they lost out on in life. I'd like to think this isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness.
Considering the 106 films and infinite joy they brought to their audiences over a 34-year career together, they earned it.