The biographical comedy-drama “Stan & Ollie” is indeed a fine mess, a string of sentimental cliches that are enlivened by stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly and their abundant fondness for the real-life duo they play, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The silent and early-sound comedy duo is shown here at the end of their run, on a 1953 music-hall tour of the United Kingdom that they hope will revive their flagging careers. Laurel (played by Coogan) is polishing the gags in a “Robin Hood” script, while Hardy (played by Reilly) is succumbing to his usual vices: Food, matrimony, and the ponies.
The tour has the duo re-creating their classic skits for smaller-than-promised audiences, until they take the advice of their promoter Bernard (Rufus Jones) and perform some publicity stunts. When their wives — Hardy’s Lucille (Shirley Henderson), a worrywart ex-script girl, and Laurel’s Ida (Nina Arianda), who was a big star back in St. Petersburg — arrive on the scene, the tensions and some old resentments between the comics.
Those resentments are spelled out in flashbacks to the 1930s, when Laurel tried to fight their cheapskate producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) to renegotiate a salary and creative control comparable to Charlie Chaplin.
Director Jon S. Baird (“Filth”), working off a script by Jeff Pope (who co-wrote “Philomena” with Coogan), hints at how Laurel and Hardy’s era is fading out, like showing the advancing age of their fan base. The central story line is a snooze, though, largely premised on Laurel keeping from Hardy the truth about their prospective comeback movie.
What enlivens “Stan & Ollie” is the way Baird and his stars stage small moments that serve as built-in homages to Laurel and Hardy’s classic sight gags — for example, at one train station, they lug a heavy trunk up a flight of stairs, only to see it slide back down.
And it helps that Coogan and Reilly work extra hard to squeeze laughs out of those gags, and at distilling Stan and Ollie’s essence in their performances. Make-up and prosthetics help, especially with Reilly’s fat suit for Hardy, but the actors also manage to display that comfortable shorthand long-standing partners develop and maintain in spite of old grudges or the ravages of time.
‘Stan & Ollie’
Opened December 25 in select cities; opens Friday, January 25, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and the Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated PG for some language and for smoking. Running time: 97 minutes.