Coogan & Reilly persuasively embody Stan & Ollie

Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Ollie Hardy in Stan & Ollie (Nick Wall | Sony Picture Classics)

If you spend much time on the computer, sooner or later some friend will post a link to a YouTube video that shows Laurel and Hardy’s famous soft-shoe dance number from their 1937 movie Way Out West. It might be the original version, accompanied by a cowboy band called the Avalon Boys singing the song “At the Ball, That’s All.” More likely, it will be one of innumerable parody versions. Long after their deaths, Stan and Ollie have been forced to dance to Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive,” Luís Fonsi’s “Despacito,” the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the theme from Zorba the Greek and even the Macarena.

Aside from confirming the truism that plenty of YouTube creators have way too much time on their hands, what this overabundance of overdubs proves is that Laurel and Hardy were a double act for the ages. Their gentle, machismo-subverting physical humor ages amazingly well. Though it involves a fair amount of shoving, tripping, eye-poking and pratfalls, it never mines the overt hostility present in the work of the Three Stooges. And, unlike Abbott and Costello, they didn’t need a straight man to make the funny guy seem funnier. Though Stan Laurel wrote the bulk of their material, onscreen they were peers, each character equally prone to foolish mishaps and small humiliations.

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Jon S. Baird’s new film Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, would have us believe that this mutuality persisted throughout the two iconic comedians’ long joint career, bleeding over irresistibly into real-world situations. Some people just can’t stop themselves from being funny; we probably have all known someone who’s “always on.” Here we see Laurel replicating his inflating hat trick in a movie mogul’s waiting room to try to make the stony receptionist laugh, Hardy waggling his fingers in a characteristic shy Ollie gesture at a gaggle of schoolgirls he passes on the street. Together, there’s no repressing them. The routines are so soundly rehearsed that they can kick into character anywhere; at showbiz parties, it’s expected of them.

But under the surface, in this retelling of their final tour of England and Ireland following a long rift in their partnership, resentments and jealousies simmered. The movie starts in 1937 on the set of Way Out West – yes, we do get to see them dance that dance in front of a rear-projection screen depicting a frontier town – with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) using the difference in termination dates of their studio contracts to play one against the other. With a few more years of security yet to go, Hardy evades Laurel’s attempts to negotiate a joint raise and accepts a one-off pairing with Harry Langdon (and a live elephant) in Zenobia. Being British, they repress their anger and eventually go back to work together again.

In 1953, old tensions come to a head when the aging pair reunite for the British Isles tour that’s meant to stoke enough nostalgic hype to get them their first movie contract in years, a Robin Hood parody. Their early fame has faded, and they are forced to play to half-empty halls and stay in rundown hotels. Slippery tour promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) keeps making excuses; the film producer who’s supposed to be backing the Robin Hood project isn’t returning their calls; then their respective wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda), join them in London, bickering nonstop.

At a party, Stan and Ollie have a very public falling-out, venting long-nursed grievances in words that wound, but somehow manage to pass it off as stage schtik. Meanwhile, a series of publicity events arranged by Delfont is boosting audience interest in the tour – just as their chemistry has gone sour. It takes a health crisis to make them reassess the personal bond that transcends their business partnership.

Stan & Ollie is a sweet story with no big narrative surprises, but a well-crafted screenplay by Jeff Pope (Coogan’s co-author on Philomena), excellent performances across the board and a whole lot of heart that make it an appealing watch. O’Reilly, whose prosthetic jowls required four hours in the makeup chair for each day of shooting, vocally falls short a bit in persuading us that he’s an Englishman who has spent many years living in Southern California. But he and Coogan both clearly spent a lot of time studying the masters’ body language. Onstage and off, they bring their best game to make two dead gods of comedy spring back to life. They sell Laurel and Hardy’s natural gifts for being visually funny, and the fundamental affection that underlay their partnership as well.

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