I’m nuts about Laurel and Hardy, but the folks behind the bioflick “Stan & Ollie” clearly adore them more. Blame that love on creating a nice mess.
The film opens in 1937 with Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) at the height of their popularity, harping good-naturedly about paying alimony checks and trying to squeeze in time to party with Clark Gable. Rich men’s problems.
Flash forward 15 years with the pair reuniting after a passive-aggressive breakup, hoping to use a series of live performances to generate interest in a “Robin Hood” spoof they want to make.
Their “comeback” tour isn’t off to a good start. Director Jon S. Baird makes sure we know that by having rain pour down as the sad sacks share a heavy sigh on the doorstep of a second-rate hotel.
Sparse audiences and a suspect agent don’t keep the pair from acting out their routines in their everyday life, even when their shenanigans don’t make any sense. At a train station, the pair watch as a suitcase tumbles down the stairwell, a clear nod to their famous piano-moving scene. Laurel tries to entertain a secretary in a waiting room as if he’s auditioning for Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.” Hardy reacts to a bad bet on a horse with the twirl of his tie.
Baird and writer Jeff Pope — a pair of BBC mainstays whose presence reflects the international appeal of their subjects — are so determined to show that the pair was just as hilarious and loose in real life as they were on the big screen, it’s a wonder they don’t kick off each morning by smooshing pies into each other’s faces.
Too broad? Then you’ll want to take a bathroom break during the scene in which Laurel realizes that the film deal is going nowhere and gazes wistfully at a poster of the red-hot Abbott and Costello.
The actors have clearly prepared for a more ambitious film.
Coogan, who showed off his knack for impersonations in “The Trip,” has Laurel’s flummoxed looks down pat, batting his eyes like he’s stuck with a pair of dirty contact lens. Reilly brings a light touch to his hefty Hardy. No wonder he received a Golden Globes nomination. Watching the two of them re-enact classic bits, especially their carefree schoolgirl dance, is giddy, good fun.
Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as Laurel’s and Hardy’s respective wives are up to their own funny business. Arianda, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actor, is a hoot whenever she keeps her husband sober by downing his liquor herself. Despite the energy level of both Arianda and Henderson (a Scottish stage actor), you can’t help but feel they’re just the opening act on a vaudeville bill.
The material finally catches up with Coogan and Reilly an hour into the 97-minute film in a party scene in which Laurel and Hardy finally air their differences in public.
“We’re friends because Hal Roach put us together, and the reason we stayed together is because the audience wanted it,” Hardy says.
The guests roar, thinking it’s all just a routine. After so many surreal antics, you might, too.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431