For devotees of Laurel and Hardy - those of us who turn to this pair for everything from the most stellar example of critic Manny Farber's "termite art" to the innocent/enduring joys of watching a fat man being kicked up the arse - the very existence of Stan & Ollie will be cause for apprehension. I felt more pop-cultural terror walking into the cinema for this one than I did heading into Mary Poppins Returns or any recent iteration of the Star Wars universe: these guys weren't just casually consumed but beloved in this household, from almost the first time your correspondent caught one or another of their shorts on school-holiday TV as a child. Any failure to grasp their essence - any flailing attempt to update their schtick for a contemporary audience, à la 2012's The Three Stooges - would therefore go beyond disappointment into the realms of outright desecration; I might even have been prompted to leave an ANGRY ALL-CAPS SCREED on somebody's message board.
Well, take out your hankies and mop your brows. Within its opening twenty minutes, Jon S. Baird's film has staged a note-perfect homage to the duo's dance sequence in 1937's Way Out West, and a scarcely less well choreographed reprise of the "hard-boiled eggs and nuts" routine from 1932's County Hospital (with a new grace note: the half-smile this Stan flashes as he pulls out the salt shaker and gets the laugh he was expecting). Throughout, Jeff Pope's script provides its Laurel and Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) with bits that sound like continuations of their on-camera work, but assume a novelty for taking place in the real world; our leads greet spouses (respectively, Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) who are not incomparable to the pair's wives in the shorts and features, and equally alert to any tomfoolery. You begin to relax into, even enjoy, the rediscovery of old, familiar dynamics and rhythms, assured this is a film that has been compiled by careful scholars and craftsmen.
Scholars enough, for one, to have grasped the poignancy of the moment this Stan and Ollie have wound up in: not their 1930s heyday (captured in a single-shot prologue where the pair's bonding gets interrupted by Danny Huston's ferociously patrician Hal Roach), but the 1953 tour of the British Isles that saw them revisiting their routines night after night in front of modest-to-scant crowds in the vain hope of financing the Robin Hood pastiche Stan was typing up after hours. (Pope's longtime associate Danny Baker has the recurring phone-in topic "Celebs in reduced circumstances": the theatre tour is a fine illustration of that concept.) Up and down the land this duo travel, preferring at all stops to sock one another over the head with a prop mallet than address the bone of contention that has lodged in their throats - namely the film Ollie made without Stan in the wake of their contract dispute with Roach, a development the film treats as if it were a sidestep into porno, or a marital infidelity. If that sounds absurd, remember how much screen time this pair spent in bed together.
The presence of Coogan reminds us not so much of Partridge this time, but of The Trip, that masterclass in male avoidance and circumlocution centred on best friends who'd rather make one another laugh than talk about what's really bugging them. Baird's film performs its own form of soft-shoe shuffle around the antagonism at its centre. As he revealed in a recent episode of Radio 4's The Film Programme, Pope originally wrote a much tougher, darker screenplay, which was then reworked substantially along the film's journey to the top of the UK box office. The film we've ended up with a very much a PG-rated tribute to/celebration of the Laurel-Hardy genius and friendship. It has, however, left in enough to hold and divert us while we wait for its dramatic scheme to become apparent - most obviously some meticulous recreations of the routines the pair trotted out on this tour. In this, Baird is aided greatly by his leads' physical transformations. The mould was broken when the original Stan and Ollie took shape, but Coogan and Reilly get as close to them as physiognomy and latex will allow, and they work smashingly well as a team.
Reilly, naturally, has the broad comedy down pat: what was a film like 2008's Step Brothers, if not a rowdier extension of the L&H ethos? (Even the title would fit a two-reeler from 1932.) His skill here is to suggest the vulnerable soul hidden beneath the bulk, the Southern gentillesse that manifested in that peculiar, supplicatory gesture Ollie used to do with his fingertips. Offstage, this Ollie generally wouldn't hurt a fly, which is why it's so regrettable when he and Stan come to turn on one another. Coogan catches something of Laurel's infinite variety of facial expressions, and that adenoidal delivery; he also allows himself to look his age, not for ridicule (as he's come to do as Partridge) but for far more moving effects. Yet he also has the intelligence to link Stan's on- and offstage personae - to spot how a man celebrated for being a put-upon patsy became a put-upon patsy, and found himself reacting to that. (Eroding the boundaries between selves may well have come easy to a performer who, in the course of a recent BBC interview, had to endure his co-star remarking jovially upon just how often Coogan reminded him of a certain Norwich-based broadcaster.)
Baird has surrounded them with choice production design and secondary casting: Rufus Jones is expertly glib as impresario Bernard "Bernie" Delfont, weaponising a chivvying smile, and the film earns major points for realising that Henderson's cartoonish voice is perfectly tuned for a film echoing the comic excesses of the studio era. (Preston Sturges would have loved her.) Yet the heart of the film is two old troupers attempting to work through a tricky patch, a lovers' tiff, in a manner very much of a piece with the Britain of the 1950s: quietly, indirectly, professionally. That leaves Stan & Ollie as a crowdpleaser in a somewhat minor key, but there are gestures to a wider transitional moment, with the music hall tradition in which the subjects' act was steeped about to be left for dead by rock 'n' roll. (As Ollie ventures, just before the final curtain drops: "It was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?") With assistance from Steve and John, Jeff and Jon afford Stan and Ollie a further bow, another encore, one last moment in the spotlight - and the audience applauds, smiles and perhaps even sheds tears of joy all over again. It always was a simple, uncomplicated pleasure.
Stan & Ollie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.