Fame is a fickle mistress. The long-dead superstars of yesteryear mostly elicit blank stares today. Even within their lifetimes, most celebrities live long enough to see their stars dim and their careers fizzle. And so it is that many moviegoers today will have no reference point for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- a classic comedy team that drew crowds to 23 feature films (and 72 short films) between 1927 and 1951 -- but that shouldn't stop them from checking out "Stan & Ollie," an affectionate tribute starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.
"Stan & Ollie" focuses on the duo's tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland in the early 1950s during a time when their fame is in decline. Jeff Pope's script wisely begins by introducing beanpole Laurel (Coogan) and portly Hardy (Reilly) in their prime, on the set of 1937's "Way Out West." Friendly banter about their social lives and their contract negotiations with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) carry the pair in front of the cameras, where they knock out a celebrated dance routine with professional aplomb. It's a precipitous drop to 1953, which finds the team playing live to dispiritingly small houses as Laurel attempts to will into existence another film project (a Robin Hood parody).
Director Jon S. Baird ("Filth") cultivates what's evident in the script and the leading performances: a deep respect for Laurel and Hardy as craftsmen and as flawed but caring individuals who made each other better. Even in the last days of his stardom, Laurel remains creatively fertile, constantly brainstorming new bits for the stage show and the prospective film, and bouncing them off his partner to keep Hardy's tenuous hope and verve alive as his health begins noticeably to decline. One has to wear down a lot of shoe leather to stay in the game, and not just hoofing it on the stage. Promotional appearances, though draining, prove the key to the sudden resurgence that makes Laurel and Hardy a hot ticket again.
Primarily, "Stan & Ollie" will appeal to comedy nerds, especially those with at least a passing familiarity with Laurel & Hardy (perhaps best known today for starring in 1934's "March of the Wooden Soldiers"). Coogan and Reilly convincingly channel their comedy counterparts (while aging themselves up by about a decade), with Reilly getting an assist from excellent prosthetics, hair, and makeup. The recreated routines are a joy to behold, but the actors also evince a soulful connection to their forebears when not under the lights. Pope's script understands that true comedians see comic potential everywhere they go, cracking jokes and conjuring bits to entertain their favorite audience: each other.
"Stan & Ollie" also introduces us to the actors' respective spouses, Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), who visit their husbands on the road. There's tenderness there, along with a pressure to keep up appearances and maintain lifestyles, but clearly the most important marriage is between Stan and Ollie, who bicker like an old married couple but demonstrate an abiding platonic love, even a desperate emotional co-dependence. Pope labors a bit to create drama from what's essentially a gentle, wistful story of two artists together eking out a last hurrah, but there's a refreshing warmth to a family-friendly show business tale, one not about backbiting but about love -- of craft, of spouses, of friends.