The legacy of two legendary entertainers is honoured handsomely in Jon S. Baird's Stan & Ollie, an unchallenging biopic that offers little more than earnestness and the skill of its performers as tribute to its subjects, Laurel & Hardy. It's a fitting approach, since it mirrors their own - these were popular artists, no great innovators yet masters at perceiving the demands of their audience and faithfully delivering upon them. Baird's movie never belittles these men nor that audience, though nor does it display signs of striving for anything more substantial. One queries whether the soft, warm glow it emits is a necessary tonic against the tensions in its narrative or if these two aspects clash against one another, negating their separate impacts; there is, at once, much to appreciate here and yet too few opportunities to do so fully and effectively.
Stan & Ollie's modesty is, though, decidedly a virtue. Patient scenes of gentle humour and pathos draw its characters to the fore, with only the attractive set dressing for distraction. Jeff Pope's screenplay uses broader strokes the smaller the part, though is unafraid of excavating the knottier elements of its central duo's relationship in the dog days of their careers. It's alternately charming and disarming, inflected with coarse little details that engender a sense of piercing honesty at times, though never of detrimental effect to the movie's general affability. For all its glossy production value, there's a feeling of clear-eyed truthfulness that abounds from every interaction between Steve Coogan's Laurel and John C. Reilly's Hardy, or those about one another in their separate scenes.
It's rich material for these actors, and they rise to it magnificently. Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy is bracingly empathetic, a vivid portrait of a woman of whose own personal turmoils she could hardly control. Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel is quite exceptional, confirming her as one of the finest comedic performers in the business - I could have watched her for hours. Naturally, though, the movie belongs to its leads. John C. Reilly's Oliver Hardy is a deceptively complex figure, as gregarious on one hand as he is tortured on the other; Reilly is expressive in the most remarkable way, never either overplaying nor underplaying, always captivating. Steve Coogan's Stan Laurel is so exact an impression that one almost forgets the real-life Laurel and begins to regard Coogan as the real deal; his every micro-mannerism is so acutely uncanny that one can but marvel. This brilliant ensemble occupies a movie that's a tad beneath their skill, a bit too uncomplicated for such detailed work, yet they alone make it worth watching. Stan & Ollie is thus an entirely respectable tribute, and memorable for all the right reasons.