Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics

‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.

But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny. The most inspired attempts at that kind of thing have used actors who have a kind of cracked comic gift themselves: Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Even when those uneven films aren’t clicking, you buy the concept. You’re really looking at someone unique.

Which brings us to Stan & Ollie, a new film that concentrates on a single period from the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The greatest comedy duo in showbiz history (this is not up for debate), Laurel and Hardy enjoyed enormous success together from the mid-1920s onward. The film’s concept is to catch the pair with their career in its sundown phase, as they embark on a live tour of Britain circa 1953. The houses are half-empty and an alleged movie deal with a European producer is almost certainly a pipe dream; meanwhile, the boys have some old issues to sort out. The material is sentimental, fairly tame, and partly fictionalized.

Anyway: Steve Coogan plays Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Hardy, and that’s what makes the film go. They re-create some classic routines, with obvious affection; these are performers who understand comedy in their bones. Coogan is a gifted mimic (Google “Steve Coogan” + “Michael Caine” and enjoy), and he builds a precise re-creation of Laurel’s voice and gestures. Coogan’s fussiness works for the role, too: Laurel was the creative mind behind the duo’s routines, and Coogan makes you suspect Laurel might have been a little envious of his partner’s ability to goof off and have fun. If Coogan does a splendid impersonation, Reilly gives a full performance as “Babe” Hardy. This is a moving look at an easygoing guy, in bad health and aware of his declining abilities, who might be participating in this sketchy tour just to please his old friend.

Stan & Ollie has a bonus: screenwriter Jeff Pope (he wrote Coogan’s Philomena) and director Jon S. Baird make room for a second comedy duo. Stan and Ollie’s wives, Ida (an uproarious Nina Arianda) and Lucille (tiny Shirley Henderson), respectively, get their own comic energy going — Ida a Russian bossypants, Lucille a wry peacemaker. These two great actresses could easily carry a movie on their own, and they add just the right dash of salt to prevent Stan & Ollie from reducing itself to a nostalgic stew.

Stan & Ollie

Opens Friday, January 25 | Rated PG

More in Film

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.