2018 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: The phrase “movie magic” has been tossed around for decades but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example than what is witnessed in Jon S. Baird‘s deeply felt and incredibly moving “Stan & Ollie.” Boasting two gargantuan performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, the film is a refreshing look at aging Hollywood, while examing the friendship of two figures that meant so much to each other. Immaculately constructed, “Stan & Ollie” assembles a multitude of laughs, while not holding back to bring out a few tears.

Stan & Ollie,” tells the story of Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly), the world’s most famous comedy duo. When the two attempt to reignite their film careers, they embark on what becomes their swan song, all along a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

The film lives and ignites with the two ingenious achievements by Coogan and Reilly.  Coogan’s search and discovery into Stan’s deep-rooted insecurity is enlightening. He invites the viewer on the journey, showing his most fragile elements, before walloping the audience with his charismatic wit.

Reilly falls into Ollie with impeccable precision and genuine sensitivity. More than just a makeup trick, Reilly delivers a searing, realistic depiction of an emotional and delicately damaged soul. Shattering each scene he takes part in, not since “Chicago” has he proved his worth in the industry and gave a gift that will be felt for years to come.

One of the more surprising and enjoyable elements are the one-two punch turns from Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Laurel and Hardy’s wives Lucielle and Ida.  Henderson’s mousy words are believed in her pleading for her husband’s well-being, while Arianda’s comedic timing is just as brilliant as her dramatic calls. All these components measure up to one of the year’s best ensembles along with Danny Huston‘s biting producer and Rufus Jones‘ hilarious and skeevy tour manager.

Laurie Rose‘s camera work is perfectly executed, as the film’s brown hue adds to its classic feel.  A near ten-minute opening, almost entirely one shot, is a rapture. John Paul Kelly‘s production design along with Guy Speranza‘s costume work are two ingredients that make this sweet film all the sweeter. Rolfe Kent‘s music is his best composition since “Sideways,” as he walks the viewer to near tears, focusing on the moments with strings and piano tunes that are brilliantly accomplished.

Baird’s direction may feel standard, but he doesn’t paint a picture other than one of friendship, understanding, and love. The respect and adoration for Laurel and Hardy are apparent in every frame, showcasing his more inventive sensibilities. Jeff Pope‘s script packs a jolt, showing the struggles of old Hollywood splendidly. Letting Laurel and Hardy perform their renditions and bits on more than one occasion drives home what their legacy has meant to cinema.

Stan & Ollie” is the kind of film you want to love, and are acutely attuned to its spirit. Its lavish sets and harmonious performances are just the surface of what it delivers. It cuts to the core of the men, following their uncertainty in a world that’s forgotten them without sacrificing their humanity. Intelligent and beautiful, the chamber in which Baird and team pack the story is a beautiful slice of cinematic history that is wholly satisfying.

“Stan & Ollie” screened at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and opens in theaters on Dec. 28.

GRADE(★★★½)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “STAN & OLLIE” ranks among the contenders!