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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.
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