Biopics are tricky business. For every Steve Jobs (which scored Oscar nods for Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) there's an embarrassing flick like Jobs (featuring Ashton Kutcher as the Apple co-founder). I keep thinking about why Bohemian Rhapsody is so wildly popular this award season. The film—this week nominated for five Oscars—uses a mercurial moment as its true north: Freddie Mercury's jaw-dropping performance at Live Aid. (A scene made infinitely more powerful by the knowledge that Mercury would die of AIDS just six years later.)
Stan & Ollie, a bittersweet love story about the greatest comedy partnership in movie history, dips into the same magic. It, too, chooses to shine its brightest Klieg light on a little-known slice of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's time together, rather than making the mistake of pumping too much air into an extended chronology of their careers (they made 107 film appearances between 1927 and 1950). As the end credits rolled on Stan & Ollie, I wanted more—always a good sign for biopic—and some wonderful, rarely seen photos of Laurel & Hardy triggered more than a few happy tears as the lights came up on the theater. Simply put, I adored this film and can't wait for you to see it.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are two of the funniest men in cinema, but I never would have thought of a film pairing them together. Within the first two minutes of Stan & Ollie, though, I'm guessing you'll have the same reaction as I did: "Of course, they're perfect. They were born to play Laurel & Hardy."
A marvelous script from Jeff Pope (who previously collaborated with Coogan on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Philomena), reveals a somewhat neglected bit of Laurel & Hardy history, an extremely modest live appearance tour of the U.K. and Ireland during the early '50s. Here we see these former Hollywood titans staying in low-quality hotels or guest houses, and playing to half-packed theaters in tiny British towns. All along, they're eking out what would be the last vestige of their careers. The real magic in the story is that at the height of their film popularity in the 1930s and '40s, the pair were inseparable on screen, but off-screen they were simply work colleagues. Hardy would often go golfing and liked to toss back more than a few drinks, while Laurel was the creative brains who oversaw every aspect of production. It wasn't until they went on a live tour in the early '50s that they lived as if they were in each others' pockets. In effect, they became as close in their real lives as their on-screen personas had been. The story is peppered with touching details about that central relationship. For example, Laurel kept writing sketches for the pair seven years after they had retired—sketches that were ultimately never performed.
Director Jon Baird's dynamism is present from the get-go: The film opens with a six-minute tracking shot that follows the pair from their dressing room across a Hollywood studio lot, onto a set, into an argument with a studio boss and directly into on a film set where Laurel & Hardy perform their iconic dance to "At the Ball, That's All" in Way Out West, considered by many to be one of the funniest movies ever made.
Extra kudos should go to makeup supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and prosthetic designer Mark Coulier (Oscar winners for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Iron Lady) for transforming Coogan and Reilly into two of the most famous faces in cinema history.
It's a puzzlement why Stan & Ollie isn't part of this year's Oscar conversation. Alas, the true reward is in this surprisingly tender (and often hilarious) story itself.