In the hilarious movie comedies of the immortal Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, many of the laughs come from watching the duo teetering on the brink, unaware that they’re about to crash their car or to have a floor give way under them or to drop a piano down a very tall flight of stairs.
“Stan & Ollie,” which explores the duo’s career in its final stages — as well as their ongoing off-screen relationship — does a lot of teetering on its own, although luckily it never topples. It’s a story about the serious side of comedians that never indulges in sad-clown sentimentality. It calls upon modern actors to recreate iconic film moments without falling prey to the many potential embarrassments of such restagings. And it intelligently explores the limitations of working partnerships, not to mention the elusive line between partnership and friendship, in a way that neither canonizes nor excoriates its famous subjects.
In other words, there are many moments in which “Stan & Ollie” could have, but doesn’t, drop the piano. It’s a testament to the extraordinary performances by Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (as Oliver Hardy), as well as the screenplay by Jeff Pope (working from A.J. Marriot’s book “Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours”) and the direction from Jon S. Baird (“Filth”), that this funny, moving film becomes that rare show-biz biopic that doesn’t bury its subject in an attempt to praise it.
Not that it’s really a biopic: the film does begin at the Hal Roach Studios in 1937, where Laurel and Hardy are the hottest comic duo in Hollywood. Even amidst their success, however, Stan thinks they’re being mistreated by Roach (Danny Huston); he considers playing hardball in their contract renegotiations or maybe even taking the duo to another studio, but the more easy-going Ollie — currently racked with debt after a string of failed marriages — would rather go along and get along.
The story then jumps ahead to the 1950s, where the heyday of Laurel and Hardy is now a fond memory. The two men embark on a tour of the United Kingdom, in the hopes of stoking a British producer’s interest in making a Robin Hood parody that Stan spends all his time rewriting. Oliver’s a lot heavier than he used to be, making the pratfalls and the dancing difficult, and at first, they’re chagrined that their tour manager Bernard Delfont (an amusingly oily Rufus Jones) has booked them in third-rate music halls and even sketchier hotels.
But as the duo commits to publicity stunts for the newsreel cameras, the audiences show up and the venues and the accommodations improve, and by the time they get to London, they’re playing the Victoria and staying at the Savoy, just in time to greet their wives — Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) — who have traveled from the States to meet up with them. A former script girl and retired dancer, respectively, Lucille and Ida have a hilariously prickly chemistry; there could be a whole movie of Henderson and Arianda as a comedy duo of their own, getting on each other’s nerves but ultimately having each other’s backs.
Those British audiences still love Laurel and Hardy, but that affection is very much tinged with nostalgia; every fan they encounter says something along the lines of “I can’t believe you’re still doing these old routines.” And while that producer continues to dodge Stan’s calls, and Oliver’s knee bothers him more and more, things finally come to a head after their London opening night, in which the two old comics have the kind of brutal, cutting confrontation that only people who’ve worked together for decades can have: Stan reveals he still feels betrayed that Oliver didn’t stand by him in the fight with Roach, and Oliver responds that while Stan has always loved “Laurel & Hardy,” he’s never been much of a real friend.
Moments like this land because Coogan and Reilly have managed to make these screen legends into life-size human beings; they recreate the vintage comic bits perfectly, from Hardy’s wails of pain and huffs of exasperation to Laurel’s rubberfaced expressions and wide-eyed silliness, but it’s in the offstage, relatable moments that these characters truly come alive. (Makeup artist Mark Coulier and his team deserve praise for giving Reilly prosthetics that make him look like a much heftier man and not like an actor who is swathed in putty.)
For film lovers, it’s a particularly excruciating brand of torture to watch inept modern-day mimicry of cherished cinematic moments, so it’s worth spotlighting the grace with which Coogan and Reilly perform, and Baird directs, classic Laurel and Hardy shtick. The film even suggests that Stan and Oliver would reflexively fall into performance mode as part of their daily life without hitting us over the head with it, and the current actors nail the timing and the physicality throughout.
Cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Overlord”) scores an impressive tracking shot early on as Stan and Oliver make their way past showgirls and centurions as they go from their dressing room to the set of “Way Out West,” but the film tends toward TV levels of brightness, even when the characters are in a damp boarding house or crumbling theater. Rolfe Kent’s score segues from silent-movie sprightliness to more somber themes, but like the rest of the film, it never overplays the more dramatic moments.
“Stan & Ollie” sees screen legends being cued to exit whether they want to or not, but it manages to do so without being dreary or lachrymose, like so many other films about fading Hollywood stars. It gives Steve Coogan one of his finest screen roles to date and for Reilly, it’s another triumph right on the heels of “The Sisters Brothers.” Whether you adore Laurel and Hardy or have never seen them in action, this film celebrates both the artist and the tenacity it takes to remain one.