There is inherent risk in making a movie about comedy legends. That's because it's almost impossible for actors to capture the specific, unique qualities that made them legends in the first place without it seeming like an inferior imitation. Every once in a while, you'll get a good performance in a so-so film, like Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin. Other times, you get utter disasters like the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges. Against the odds, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly manage to successfully channel, respectively, Laurel and Hardy in the comedy Stan & Ollie. After a brief adjustment, you forget it's a recreation and settle in with the characters.
The story takes place slightly past the comedy duo's heyday. Stan has angered the head of the studio by continually asking for more of the profits from their work. Ollie is getting pressured to make movies without his partner. To jump-start their careers, the men go on a theater tour in Britain. Initially, they play to empty houses but over time are able to rouse increased interest. Along the way, buried issues between them rise to the surface as they struggle to get on the same creative page each night.
A few Laurel and Hardy routines are recreated in Stan & Ollie, most hilariously a bit in which the two repeatedly miss each other at a train station, despite being in close proximity. Other times, the film incorporates variations of their famous routines into the plot. For example, the classic “pushing a piano up the stairs” scene from 1932's The Music Box is re-imagined with the guys hauling a massive trunk of their supplies up a large staircase. Coogan and Reilly prove more adept at carrying out such bits than expected. Again, no one can top the real deal, although their efforts are nothing to be embarrassed about.
Keeping those things to a relative minimum was a smart idea. Stan & Ollie focuses more on the friendship and professional collaboration between Laurel and Hardy. Coogan is excellent as Laurel, conveying how his slightly carefree side off-camera belies a serious-minded business ambition. Reilly is every bit his equal, hinting at some of the heartbreak underneath Hardy's comical surface. His work is especially poignant in the third act, as Ollie must come to terms with a health issue.
There's some side material about the men's marriages that isn't particularly developed, and it's safe to say that the screenplay is relatively traditional in terms of telling the story. You won't find anything innovative in the approach. In the hands of Coogan and Reilly, though, Stan & Ollie succeeds as a look at how two very different people can form a partnership that works during times when they love each other, times when they hate each other, and every time in between.
The actors create a chemistry that feels true to the one they're emulating. You might feel inspired to go back and watch some Laurel and Hardy movies afterward.
out of 4
Stan & Ollie is rated PG for some language, and for smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.