Generations of film buffs got their start on Laurel & Hardy comedies — classic short films from the silent and early sound era that laid bare the basic principles of great comedy.
So any sentimental film appreciation of the cinema’s first great comic duo warrants a soft touch from reviewers. Fortunately, “Stan & Ollie” is long on charm, with a few chuckles, some wide grins of recognition and absolutely delightful musical numbers.
Because otherwise, this “farewell tour” biography is downbeat and wistful, if not a downright melancholy “comedy.”
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are unlikely but entertaining castmates in the title roles. The brilliant mimic Coogan gets the English music hall comic Laurel’s mousy pitch, wide-eyed innocence and dopey double-takes just right.
Add a few pounds of padding to the singing-dancing Reilly and he’s spot-on as Hardy, the plump Georgian foil and long-suffering sight-gag sidekick to Laurel.
Their duet of the Laurel & Hardy top 40 hit “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” is an absolute delight and the highlight of the film and shows how well this pairing pays off.
Director Jon S. Baird (“Filth,” “Vinyl”), working with a Jeff Pope screenplay, shows us the duo at their 1937 peak, with Laurel urging Hardy to leave penny-pinching producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston, just nasty enough) and set off on their own.
Their stardom has rendered them womanizers, prompting “morals clause” threats from Roach. Hardy’s burning through his pay gambling. Laurel drinks and keeps losing marriages thanks to his skirt-chasing and workaholic ways.
“I’m never getting married again. I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like, and buy her a house.”
Laurel is the brains of the outfit, reworking gags, instructing the director and writing writing writing, always digging around for material. In the film’s long-take opening walk through the busy studio backlot, Ollie is Mr. Roll-with-the-Punches. Stan is angling for fresh laughs.
“What are all these Romans doing here?”
“Dunno. Maybe there’s a sale at the Forum!”
“You’ve got a million of them, don’t you?”
But that was the year their long association with Roach was broken, with one man’s contract expiring before the other’s. Cut to 16 years later and they’re at the end of the line, in Britain, hoping to get a “Robin Hood” comedy onto the screen, touring music halls for a cut-rate operator (Rufus Jones, funny).
Stan’s the one making the movie arrangements, and it’s a battle. Ollie is obliviously content to re-enact their Greatest Hits — patomimed pratfalls and witty exchanges from their films — to the mostly-empty theaters of Glasgow, Newcastle, Swansea and Carlyle.
With their latest wives away, Stan can drink, Ollie can gamble and salt his food and generally wreck his health (both men smoked like chimneys).
They have no trouble with regaining the timing and tried and true comedy crutches they leaned on for decades.
“How about I just punch you right in the nose? Haven’t done that in a long time.”
“Can I poke you in the eye?”
“You could wring my neck.”
“I’d rather poke you in the eye.”
But there are old grudges and new desperation hanging over this tour. Money is tight, Ollie still gambles and they need to turn things around before their wives — Shirley Henderson plays Ollie’s ex-script supervisor spouse Lucille, Nina Arianda (“Midnight in Paris”) is Stan’s imperious, snobby Russian dancer “better half” — arrive.
Those who recognize them get a bit of a routine — a desk clerk is treated to thumping luggage and a wrestling match over the desk bell — or a “You’re still around” joke.
“Well, rigor mortis hasn’t set in QUITE yet.”
Reilly and Coogan master the gestures, the stage timing and physicality of the act — a lifelong contest featuring exasperation vs. befuddlement.
And they endlessly insult one another whenever someone meets them alone, not as a “double act.”
Mr. Hardy’s not here?
“Oh no, he’s got himself a new job — making the holes in Swiss cheeses.”
Mr. Laurel’s not with you?
“Oh no. He’s got himself a new job, mending broken biscuits.”
Coogan treats us to a charming pantomime of Stan trying to win over a stubborn and dim receptionist who has no idea who he is. And the musically-inclined Reilly warmly delivers Ollie’s delightful ukelele rendition of “Shine on Harvest Moon.”
That said, “Stan & Ollie” treads too lightly on the conflicts and never quite delivers that big belly laugh that their silent comedies managed. Perhaps a few flashbacks showing the stars as Stan and Ollie in that classic short with a tumbling piano, or playing checkers.
Staging that would have forced director Baird to painstakingly recreate a sketch that worked — and mimic how it was shot and cut. Laurel & Hardy’s films are clinics in how to write, shoot and edit comedy, and Baird — who renders this in soft, almost maudlin strokes — could stand a little schooling in that regard.
MPAA Rating: PG for some language, and for smoking
Cast: John C. Reilly, Steven Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston
Credits: Directed by Jon S. Baird script by Jeff Pope. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:37