Toward the end of their career, the comedic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy embarked on a UK tour with the hopes of convincing a British film company to finance their next movie, a comedic retelling of the Robin Hood story. It would be the last time the duo would ever perform together. Stan & Ollie, a new biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, captures that time period and the indescribable magic of their comedy. It opens areawide on Friday.
The film commences in 1937 as Stan (Coogan) and Oliver (Reilly) are finishing up a Western. Unhappy with their contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston), Stan parts with the studio, leaving Oliver to try to make a movie on his own after he fails to follow Stan out the door.
Flash forward to 1953, and the two have landed in a small British town where they're about to embark on a tour that will culminate with a show in London where a producer will hopefully see the act and go ahead with the financing of the Robin Hood project. The tour gets off to a rocky start as promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) has booked smaller theaters, and only sparse crowds show up to see the two perform. "We thought you had retired," one woman tells the men as they check into a hotel, nearly deflating their enthusiasm for the venture.
In order to boost ticket sales, Delfont has the men make some publicity appearances. The two are naturals and can turn something as simple as opening a car door into a comedy routine. As a result, the crowds pick up, and the shows begin to sell out. Stan continues to develop the script for Robin Hood even though he can't seem to get a firm commitment from the film company that initially expressed an interest in the project.
While on the tour, Oliver experiences some health issues. He has a bad knee that makes it difficult for him to dance, and he quickly gets out of breath during more physical routines too. In fact, he expresses his concern about whether he'd be able to handle one particular scene in Robin Hood where he has to fall backward into a river.
While on tour, the two also air their dirty laundry. Stan still resents Oliver for making a movie without him, and Oliver is still angry with Stan for leaving Hal's studio. The dispute serves as the film's most dramatic moment, but it doesn't define the duo's relationship. On stage and off, the two have a remarkable chemistry, and Coogan and Reilly capture that with their terrific performances. Much of the movie centers on recreating the skits from the theater tour, providing a glimpse of what it must've been like to see the dynamic duo perform live.
By the time they get to the tour's end, Laurel and Hardy have generated so much word-of-mouth buzz that audiences are clamoring to see them. The film's postscript informs us that even after Oliver's death in 1957, Stan continued to write bits for the two of them to perform. That revelation only deepens our appreciation for the way these remarkable comedians participated in what Reilly has referred to as a "comedic ballet."