By Steve Vertlieb: Stan And Ollie is truly one of the loveliest films that it has been my privilege to see in years. This sweet, gentle portrait of the screen’s indisputably greatest comedy team is often hilarious, yet heartbreaking in its unflinching portrait of two incandescent souls who lit up motion picture theaters with their impeccable artistry. John C. Reilly is astonishing as Oliver Hardy, known affectionately as “Babe” to those closest to him. His transformation and performance are deeply touching, focusing on the portly actor’s frailty, gambling addiction, and quiet dignity as the years begin to evaporate his strength and vitality. This is clearly the performance of his career. Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, the creative force behind the team’s hilarity and success, is gently brilliant in his depiction of a comedic genius struggling to keep the team alive as their gradual descent from fame and from youth has begun taking its inevitable toll.
Their respective wives are their seeming opposites. Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) is a shrill, domineering woman whose physical stature and brash personality loudly overshadow her outwardly meek husband. Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) is closer to Stan in demeanor, yet married to the gregarious “Babe” Hardy. Dedicated to preserving her beloved husband’s failing health and happiness, Lucille is the anchor who must rescue Ollie from his own excesses. Ida and Lucille are as different as Stan and Ollie, providing a striking, if bizarre, reflection and mirror image of their respective spouse’s personalities. Danny Huston in another of his menacing performances as Hal Roach, and Rufus Jones as the ruthless promoter who imports the boys to England in the latter years of their careers are, perhaps, symbolic of the crass tastes of a fickle public who have, in so cavalier a fashion, discarded the once beloved comedy team to the ash heap of fame and fortune.
Jeff Pope’s deeply melancholy screenplay, based upon Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours by A.J. Marriot, begins with the duo’s career high as they battle for release from their contract with Hal Roach, then effortlessly segues into their declining years as entertainers when the world and their once loyal fans have all but forgotten them. Laurel, who wrote all of the team’s classic comedy dialogue and routines, brings his ailing partner to England to revive their popularity with a proposed new film based upon the legend of Robin Hood. Sadly, the film never materialized, but a dream sequence in which Stan and Ollie re-create the first meeting of Robin and Friar Tuck is genuinely hilarious.
Rolfe Kent’s musical score brings sweet clarity to the failed dreams and quiet frustration, endured proudly by the embattled, fallen comic warriors, while Laurie Rose’s muted colors and cinematography lend historical accuracy to a bleak, heart aching descent from fame, popularity, and grace.
Directed with affection, and dignity by Jon S. Baird, this Sony Classics release is a tender, sweetly compassionate look at the greatest comedy team in motion picture history … after the adulation and parade had passed them by. Their growing sadness as the reality of age, health, and sad obscurity conspires to consume their devotion to one another ultimately masks a consummate love story that these gentle souls shared. Stan And Ollie is, at its considerable heart, a love story … a fragile take on the rigors and aftermath of fame, and the ultimate redemption of two beautiful human souls whose lasting dignity, respect, and affection for one another comprised the artistry, charm and enduring magic that was … and is … Stan And Ollie.