Jon S. Baird’s biopic Stan & 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 Britain, it’s a film with lots of charm.
The road is tough on two aging performers. It’s bad when no one shows up at the music halls, and its worse when they’re congratulated for surviving their has-been status. At a seaside pavilion, the hostess toasts them: “Still going strong, and still using the same material!” The team hopes to parlay the attention they’re getting into a new movie.
Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) is revealed as the sparkplug 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 other’s world.
As befitting his massive flesh, Oliver (John C. Reilly) has trouble with his vices. He accumulates ex-wives and has a taste for gambling that takes whatever money the alimony leaves. New complications come with the arrival in London of the team’s wives, who are united in mild detestation of each other. 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.
Stan & Ollie insists that the team absolutely murdered the English audiences, even as Abbott and Costello were stealing their lunch back in the States. Performing 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 & Ollie’ opens Friday, Jan. 25, at select theaters.