Stan Laurel, the slimmer British half of Hollywood double act Laurel and Hardy, was not one to wax lyrical about the art or mystique of comedy: “You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly,” he said, making vaudeville performance sound altogether as methodical and prosaic as shopping for groceries. No matter how ebullient their joint mugging, Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick routines were work, not play. In “Stan & Ollie,” a gently elegiac portrayal of the pair’s final comic collaboration — a low-rent music hall tour of the U.K. and Ireland in 1953 — the physical and emotional toll of that labor finally shows through their threadbare antics. Well-rehearsed performance chemistry is merely a veneer behind which the two veterans, as tenderly played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, find themselves struggling to click.
That the story of two stars once among the surest commercial bets in Classical Hollywood has become a low-key arthouse item is an irony that plays right into the wistful nostalgia of Jon S. Baird’s lovingly assembled film. “Stan & Ollie” toys throughout with a wry acknowledgement of its subjects’ fading relevance and audience appeal; the Sony Pictures Classics release will be counting on its own leads’ combined charm and cachet to spur word of mouth among mature viewers when the film goes into limited release Stateside on December 28. For Reilly’s admirers, the film serves as apposite counter-programming to the near-simultaneous multiplex release of “Holmes & Watson,” a vehicle for his own comic double act with Will Ferrell; the actor’s droll but subtly anguished turn as the ailing Oliver Hardy is perhaps the richest attraction here.
Significantly dialing down his directorial swagger from the levels of his raucous 2013 Irvine Welsh adaptation “Filth,” Baird opens proceedings with a virtuoso prologue that proves deliberately misleading: a sustained six-minute tracking shot that follows Laurel and Hardy, at the zenith of their fame in 1937, through a whirling, chattering carnival of backlot business as they walk and talk their way to the set of their latest throwaway comedy. Executed with aplomb by Ben Wheatley’s regular d.p. Laurie Rose, it’s a high-impact magic-of-the-movies setpiece swiftly undercut by the tetchy, contract-related squabbling that ensues between Laurel (Coogan) and oily producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), with the former pursuing a new partnership with 20th-Century Fox. Yet once the cameras roll and the pair launches into a daintily choreographed comic dance number, the magic’s back on — even amid conflict, Laurel and Hardy turn on their sweet silliness as if flicking a light switch.
When we cut to 1953, however, the film’s energy aptly slows and dims as palpably as Laurel and Hardy’s backstage rapport: It’s been eight years since their last studio picture, two years since an abysmal attempted comeback in the Europudding “Atoll K,” and it looks unlikely that Hollywood will ever come knocking again. Arriving in rain-sodden Newcastle, England, they’re checked into a third-rate boarding house by plummy theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones, hamming deliciously): These squalid digs are the first clue that the British stage tour Delfont has arranged for the hard-up has-beens will be less prestigious than promised.
Still, a gig is a gig, and a pro is a pro. Even playing to sparse crowds in creaky regional venues, Laurel and Hardy perform their trusty old material with fluid, intuitive flair, getting the laughs in all the right places. Reilly and Coogan’s recreated routines, in turn, bob along with a mixture of slavish reverence and winking force of personality, alternately imitating and interpreting the star quality of their characters. With the help of some mortifying publicity measures, the houses begin to sell out, eventually securing the pair a prime booking at London’s Lyceum Theater. Just as their act hits its stride, however, the personal dynamic between the two frays to a slender thread, aggravated by simmering resentments from their Hollywood days; meanwhile, the hope that their stage tour will secure a British film studio’s backing of their planned Robin Hood spoof “Rob ‘Em Good” looks ever more pie-in-the-sky.
This is mellow, twilight-mood material that would have one direction to shuffle in even if it weren’t bound to biographical fact, but it’s a moving wind-down, teased by mortal concerns as well as an existential fear more unique to the thespian life: What can an actor do without an act? Lest things get too morose, however, the quick, verbally limber script by Jeff Pope (Coogan’s co-writer on “Philomena”) lends some welcome itch-and-scratch to proceedings, as does the spry, spritzy friction worked up by the ensemble. Reilly and Coogan may obviously hog the spotlight here, but a secondary, more peppery personality duel between Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, both ideally cast as the comedians’ contrastingly skeptical wives Lucille and Ida, more surprisingly lands many of the film’s loudest laughs.
Ceding the flash to its cast for the most part, “Stan & Ollie” is otherwise content to be a quiet class act, made with cozy care and affection in all departments from Rolfe Kent’s balmy score right down to costume designer Guy Speranza’s wittily character-specific neckwear choices. Indeed, the film’s confidence falters only when it transposes the hapless slapstick of the duo’s screen act to their everyday reality. If a couple of labored gags around hauling luggage don’t fully land, that rather proves how much more art went into Laurel and Hardy’s craft than they ever chose to let on.