Movie Review: “Stan & Ollie”

Like the Hollywood studio scenes in “La La Land,” the opening sequence of “Stan & Ollie” is suffused with the lights, colors and sounds of a bustling backlot—or at least a contemporary director’s fantasy of one.

In a long take that’s self-consciously bravura, the camera follows Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) as they stroll the capacious grounds of Hal Roach Studios toward their latest project. It’s 1937, the height of their fame as a multimedia comedy duo, and the rivers of entertainment seem to part for them, clearing a path through kitschy replicas of Egyptian sarcophagi, extras in Greco-Roman raiment, western vistas populated by actors with lassos—the dream factory firing on all cylinders.

But as with many a Hollywood story, the higher the ascent up the tower of fame, the more precipitous the fall. This motley peek behind the curtain of Tinseltown is short-lived, contrasting with the more humbling setting of the rest of “Stan & Ollie,” set 16 years later: dank, cramped inns and stuffy European music halls, where the onetime kings of screen comedy have embarked on a live tour, hoping to secure financing for their comeback picture, a quixotic adaptation of “Robin Hood” that, quite apparently, will never materialize.

Instead, their bankrolls diminished, their prestige waning, and their bodies betraying decades of indulgence and illness, Stan and Ollie take to the modest stages of third-rate venues, regurgitating their tired material for geriatric audiences, the empty seats dwarfing the occupied: It’s a nice mess, indeed. It isn’t until their industrious, bean-counting manager (Rufus Jones) convinces the duo to forgo their dignity and engage in a series of hollow publicity stunts that the tour begins to snowball into a modest success.

Aided by a superlative hair and makeup team, John C. Reilly is barely recognizable under the corpulent jowls, the extra chin, the signature bowler cap. His Oliver Hardy is the picture of eternal optimism and dogged persistence, even in a world that seems eager to leave his brand of comedy behind. There’s enough melancholy meat on his bones to justify his recent Golden Globe nomination as more than a triumph of physical transformation.

Coogan is a droll Laurel, the foil to Reilly’s outsized banana man, but he often feels hemmed in by tightly scripted product like this. We all know his true onscreen partner is Rob Brydon; without the freedom to improvise, as is so liberally granted in his “Trip” series, his personality is tamped down to a fault.

The central snag with “Stan & Ollie” is indeed the screenplay, by Jeff Pope, which wrangles a fairly uneventful scenario—the duo’s final tour—into a transparent three-act dramatic structure, complete with a falling-out two-thirds of the way through. With a paucity of natural tension to sustain the story, the plot turns of “Stan & Ollie” feel manufactured. Director Jon S. Baird doesn’t help matters by relying on sentimental shopworn storytelling tropes, like the chorus of chiding comments from earlier in the film that resurface in the consciousness of a bedridden Hardy; this device is so clunky that the scene plays like parody.

Indeed, there aren’t many genuine laughs in a movie about two comedy gods. To this millennial’s jaundiced eyes, it’s hard to imagine Laurel and Hardy were ever funny. “Stan & Ollie” is the story of a bromance enduring through shared shtick, but I prefer to view the film as flawed tragedy—an exposé of capitalism’s pitiless churn, and the cutthroat, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ethos of Hollywood. American humor may have evolved beyond Laurel and Hardy’s physical folderol, but the underlying cynicism is as relevant as ever.

“Stan & Ollie” opens Friday, Jan. 18 at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Cinemark Boynton Beach, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale and more.