Want some Old Hollywood scandal and celebrities duking it out for power? Well, look elsewhere, because “Stan & Ollie” is definitely not FX’s “Feud: Laurel and Hardy.”
That’s a good thing.
This is a refreshingly gentle, low-key film about the latter years of the world-famous comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that homes in on the strains of decades of constant togetherness. Nothing salacious, and no dropped bombs here. “Stan & Ollie” portrays the pair less as hot-headed collaborators than a bickering married couple.
Rarer still is the biopic that chooses a moment of decline as its focus. Director Jon S. Baird’s kindly comedy is set in 1953, long after Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy’s (John C. Reilly) ’30s heyday when they made popular pictures such as “The Flying Deuces” and “Busy Bodies.”
This film takes place as their fame began to fade, when they went on a pay-the-bills theater tour through Britain. The comics trotted out their greatest hits in hopes longtime fans would show up, but they quickly got a crash course in modern public relations. The disgruntled duo discovered they would have to resort to shticky public appearances to sell tickets.
And then there’s health. The act was intensely physical, involving foolish dances and pratfalls. Many demanding bits fell on Hardy, a big guy. In their mid-60s, performing their classic bits became tough, and we see them struggle through it. “Stan & Ollie” is very much a movie about trying to relive the old days despite the realities of, well, getting old.
What the movie lacks in narrative fireworks it makes up for in sublime acting. After last week’s drecky “Holmes and Watson,” Reilly totally transforms again. Thanks to ample prosthetics, a Pooh Bear demeanor and a slow, bellowing voice, his Hardy is convincingly hearty, fatigued and lovable.
Coogan, another actor known for broader comedies and indies, is smartly restrained here, like an amiable bank teller.
The most fun, however, is watching many meticulously recreated Laurel and Hardy skits. Reilly and Coogan dig into this old-school style, whistling a happy tune, dancing at a saloon, peeling a hard-boiled egg. It’s simple stuff, but 65 years later, it still holds up.