Jon S. Baird’s biopic Stan and Ollie has a certain inflationary quality, regarding the appeal of a comedy team in their sunset years. But in lovingly recreating Laurel and Hardy’s mid-1950s tour of the UK, it’s a film with lots of charm.
Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) is revealed as the spark plug of the act, the writer who understood the formula. No matter who else was around them, on screen or stage, Laurel and Hardy needed to be the only person in each others’ worlds.
The road is tough on two aging performers. It’s bad when no one shows up at the music halls, and it’s worse when they’re congratulated for surviving their has-been status. At a seaside pavilion, they’re congratulated by the hostess: “Still going strong, and still using the same material!”
The team hopes to parlay the attention they’re getting into a new movie, a Sherwood Forest lampoon to be called Robin Good. Not much is made here of the team’s actual last movie, done before this tour in France, a disaster with several titles, including Utopia.
As befitting his massive flesh, Oliver (John C. Reilly) had trouble with his vices. He accumulated ex-wives, and he had a taste for gambling that took whatever money the alimony left. New complications come with the arrival in London of the team’s wives. They’re united in mild detestation of one another. Stan’s Russian and haughty Ida (Nina Arianda) is a bit of a princess compared to Oliver’s spouse, Lucy (Shirley Henderson, first rate as always). Seeing Ollie and Lucy laying down together in their room at the Savoy—him immense, her tiny—one gets the pleasure of marveling at the way opposites attract.
One puts up with Stan and Ollie’s insistence that the team absolutely murdered the English audiences, even as Abbott and Costello were stealing their lunches back in the U.S. But wasn’t it smiles they usually got, rather belly laughs—particularly when they were doing something as sweet as their dance to the yodeling of the cowboys in Way Out West (1937)?
Performing a copy of Laurel and Hardy’s cherishable “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” Coogan and Reilly may be even better singers than the originals. They eclipse your memories of their models, with Coogan imitating Stan’s monkeyish head scratch and Reilly, through the fat suit and makeup, evincing the beatific side of Ollie. Watching Reilly, you understand why Ollie carried the nickname “Babe” into his 60s.
It doesn’t break new ground, this biopic, but it has its stinging moments. When the two get into a fight about an old rift, this time Ollie’s slow burn is real, and so is Stan’s hesitant peacemaking. John Paul Kelly’s lavish production design drips with nostalgia; it can be a tad too sweet and rich for the times, but it’s more evidence that this film was a labor of love.
STAN AND OLLIE
Directed by Jon S. Baird. Written by Jeff Pope. Starring John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan and Shirley Henderson. (PG) 97 minutes.