There’s a clever moment midway through “Stan & Ollie” in which aging slapstick duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) get into a fight. As they stand in the middle of a public reception celebrating their work, the fracas registers to the surrounding crowd as a bit. Much of “Stan & Ollie” explores explores that disconnect: Even as the men grow distant from the happier moments of their Hollywood careers, their chemistry chases them everywhere.
Director Jon S. Baird’s bittersweet little movie follows the pair through a farewell tour across the U.K. and Ireland, where they engage in a series of lively stage shows that rekindles their talent. The ensuing showbiz dramedy follows a genial trajectory, falling short of injecting much ingenuity into the story beyond the uncanny ability to resurrect Laurel and Hardy onscreen. Yet for much of its running time, that’s sufficient. “Stan & Ollie” salutes an under-appreciated comedy duo while exploring the hardships of fading into the limelight; appropriately, the movie itself is rather forgettable even as the actors deliver brilliant performances in every scene.
A far cry from “Sunset Blvd.”, Jeff Pope’s straightforward screenplay follows the real-life circumstances of the 1953 Europe tour with a schematic approach that hits every sentimental beat right on schedule. But the two actors are so convincing that they often elevate material in much the same way that Laurel and Hardy delivered their comedy through the ongoing punchline of physical contrast. Reilly, buried in a fat suit, turns Hardy into a lovable big lug; Coogan, eyes wide open as he swings his arms around a lanky frame, bears an uncanny resemblance to the real deal.
But this schtick takes on particular resonance through lens of passing time. “Stan & Ollie” opens in the early 1930s, on the set of the pair’s iconic Western comedy “Way Out West,” with a dizzying long take that follows the pair from their dressing room to the bright lights as they bicker about a looming contract negotiation with producer Hal Roach (a fleeting but well-cast Danny Huston). As they step in front of a rear projection to engage in their famously silly dance routine, the ease with which they slip out of backroom dealings to delivering their natural talents is at once endearing and remarkable — the essence of a skill unique to the slapstick era.
Cut to 16 years later, and the bright lights have faded. Reuniting at a shabby hotel for the start of their U.K. tour, the two men look like wrinkled shells of their former selves: Hardy’s pushing 60 and struggling with health issues, while Laurel continues to cobble together a new screenplay with no apparent start date. They have yet to air the dirty laundry of their estrangement, and their stage show — an amusing musical revue with surreal misdirection, some hilarious exchanging of bowler hats, and a charming ukulele performance — allows them to slip into their old ways as if nothing has changed, but the sparse crowds suggest otherwise. With time, the situation starts to improve as ticket sales kick up, but the prospects of diving back into their old ways when both men have clearly changed means that the sudden reversal of fortunes has an obvious expiration date.
As “Stan & Ollie” develops a melodramatic story around these stage routines, the movie strikes a notable contrast: Whenever Laurel and Hardy depart the stage, the script lacks the same appealing ingredients. Still, Reilly always excels at playing good-natured men caught between aspirations and reality; paired with “The Sisters Brothers,” this performance is just the latest confirmation that he’s among the greatest American actors working today. Coogan, meanwhile, recedes into the clumsy Laurel as if the actor’s many louder caricatures never existed.
In later scenes, they’re joined by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the men’s wives, both of whom express growing concern for the strain of the tour. While the material underserves their talent, as Henderson’s character exudes reasonable concern for her husband’s health, it establishes a palpable suspense as he continues to undergo the strain of each new performance right until the tense conclusion. It’s obvious that he can’t go on, and devastating to watch a figure immortalized by film history grapple with his looming finale.
“Stan & Ollie” may not satisfy diehard Laurel and Hardy fans, but it won’t insult them, either. Compared to many of the great silent stars — Buster Keaton among them — Laurel and Hardy survived the transition to sound and the many changes to Hollywood through the sheer vitality of their hilarious act, and their capacity to continue mining it as long as they could. “Stan & Ollie” illustrates the long-term toll of that commitment, and reveals the melancholic impact of their eventual realization that their careers were finally over. Nevertheless, its greatest coup arrives with the credits, when the movie finally samples actual Laurel and Hardy material, passing the baton to the real deal. If nothing else, this agreeable period piece provides a good case for many retrospectives to come.
“Stan & Ollie” premiered at the 2018 London Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases it in New York and Los Angeles on December 28, 2018.