Another fine mess

A fond look back at iconic slapstick duo

Starring John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan. Directed by Jon S. Baird. Pageant Theatre.
Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two great comedians from the golden age of Hollywood and the first and, arguably, the greatest and most indelible comedy team in movie history. Reruns of their films, dozens of shorts and more than 20 features were ubiquitous in the first few decades of television, and they have long been ranked among the comedy greats of the silent movie era (alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, etc.).

Their work together flourished through much of the 1930s, the first decade of the sound era, as well. In the 1940s, after their break with Hal Roach Studios, their films and careers slid markedly downhill, but with the help of all those reruns on TV, their popularity stayed strong and maybe even kept growing.

Stan & Ollie, written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird, takes up a tale from the pair’s later years, with particular focus on a 1953 tour of shows undertaken by the two of them across the British Isles, when both were in their 60s and hoping to generate some much-needed income and maybe work out a deal for one more movie as well.

Baird, Pope and a very good cast (with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly shining in the title roles) have come up with mixtures of comedy and pathos that serve both as a fragmentary kind of biopic and as a latter-day Laurel and Hardy movie, a wistful sort of retrospective that finds moments of surprisingly strong sentiment in the tentative notion that those two aging comic icons were in a sense saved by the mystique of the characters they played, together, in all those movies.

Baird and company seem genuinely attached to every aspect of the film’s subject matter, and there is modest wisdom in the lightness of touch that prevails over nearly everything in this seriocomic enterprise. But the movie’s chief saving grace resides in matters of performance and characterization.

Reilly, with at least some help from costume and makeup, is a brilliantly immersive incarnation of Oliver Hardy, and while Coogan’s Stan Laurel is more in the vein of skillful impersonation, it too is mimicry of a very high order. The actors’ wives, tiny Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and the imperious Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel, are contrasting comic shrews with amusingly mismatched temperaments.

The film’s versions of comedy mogul Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and iconic farceur Jimmy Finlayson (Keith MacPherson) seem well cast and smartly played. And Rufus Jones is a superb blend of devious charm and genial evasiveness as the glad-handing, double-dealing agent and producer Bernard Delfont.