Directed by Jon S. Baird, the film opens at the height of the team’s popularity in 1937, when Stan (Coogan) engages in a contract dispute with studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Partner Ollie has long been content to let Stan fight their battles and plot their routines, but he caves when faced with the prospect of violating his own agreement.
That act of betrayal is left dangling until the story resumes 16 years later, finding Stan seeking to orchestrate a comeback, and Ollie having ballooned in weight and suffering with the ill health effects associated with it. Hope for a screen reunion lingers, but in the interim the two embark on a stage tour in England, where they come to realize that they’re no longer the attraction they once were, while their spouses (Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson) can barely hide their contempt for each other.
Gradually, the tour catches on, while the two men are forced to confront the baggage and history that remains between them. “You didn’t have the guts to ask for the deal that we deserved,” Laurel eventually snaps when the old resentments finally come pouring out.
Along the way, the audience is treated to reenactments of classic Laurel & Hardy routines, and makeup whose jaw-dropping accuracy is made all the more impressive upon seeing the clips of the actual guys that play at the end.
Both leads are so extraordinarily good as to have effectively split their award prospects, but given what a singular talent Laurel was, Coogan — in some of the best work of the comic and actor’s career — really leaves his mark, even if the Golden Globes extended a lone nod to Reilly.
Although the story covers familiar ground, there are very particular aspects to it, from grappling with aging stardom to a glimpse back at the studio system in Hollywood’s golden years, which could chew up even the town’s biggest names.
At its core, this straightforward tale about the bond between two very funny men whose names will forever be joined by an ampersand has produced a poignant movie, and those who make time for “Stan & Ollie” will have gotten themselves into a fine mess, indeed.
“Stan & Ollie” opens Dec. 28 in the US. It’s rated PG.