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Provided by Sony Pictures Classics
Steve Coogan as Stanley "Stan" Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver "Ollie" Hardy in Sony Pictures Classics' "Stan & Ollie."

“STAN & OLLIE” — 3 stars — John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda; PG (some language, and for smoking); in general release; running time: 97 minutes

Jon S. Baird’s “Stan & Ollie” is a sweet and melancholy tribute to a classic comedy team, and to the friendship that bound them.

Set mostly in the early 1950s, at the tail end of their storied career, “Stan & Ollie” follows the story of pioneering comedy team Laurel and Hardy as they approach their final bows.

We first meet the duo at the height of their powers in 1937. A long, single-take prologue follows them through the studio as they prepare to film a dance number for “Way Out West.” Their fame is massive, but bad contract arrangements are taking their toll and Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) is trying to convince Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) that they should set out on their own.

Aimee Spinks, Provided by Sony Pictures Classics
John C. Reilly as Oliver "Ollie" Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stanley "Stan" Laurel in Sony Pictures Classics' "Stan & Ollie."

Sixteen years later, things have changed substantially. Stan and Oliver have arrived in England for a slate of live performances designed to drum up enough interest to finance a new film — a Robin Hood parody. If they are recognized at all, people remark that they thought the duo was already retired, and judging by the meager turnout at their shows, they may as well be.

Still, the veteran comics endure, pointed at the hopeful if dim light of a new film at the end of the tunnel. As Stan and Oliver press forward, we learn more and more about what happened after that California prologue and understand the weary but mostly friendly dynamic they share.

The boys get a boost when their wives arrive in town. Stan is married to a Russian former dancer named Ida (Nina Arianda), and Oliver to a former studio script girl named Lucille (Shirley Henderson). Ida and Lucille have a comic dynamic of their own, though the sense of antagonism feels more genuine than designed for laughs.

Provided by Sony Pictures Classics
From left to right: Steve Coogan as Stanley "Stan" Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver "Ollie" Hardy in Sony Pictures Classics' "Stan & Ollie."

For their part, Stan and Oliver are old pros, always in character, performing impromptu bits for whoever they meet in their travels: the girl at the hotel check-in counter, or, in one sad passage, the receptionist for the producer who is holding the team’s future in his hands. Always, there is a sense that the boys’ time has passed, that the smiles and laughs are more polite than sincere. At one point, Stan lingers on a street corner gazing mournfully at a billboard for a new Abbott and Costello movie, and you get the feeling that the torch was passed before the mentor was ready to let go.

In spite of the pervasive melancholy, “Stan & Ollie” also carries a sweetness and dignity that ennobles its subjects. A lot of that has to do with the warm performances from Coogan and Reilly, who disappear into their roles. Rufus Jones also stands out as the team’s manager Bernard Delfont, who hides his true feelings behind a dishonest smiling veneer.

1 comment on this story

While the comedy only comes in flashes — we do get to see a handful of complete routines — “Stan & Ollie” is more of a tribute to friendship and the professionalism of a past age. For Laurel and Hardy fans, Baird’s film might best come in the middle of a movie marathon, offering a glimpse behind the scenes to explain the sparkle in the comics’ eyes.

Rating explained: “Stan & Ollie” is rated a soft PG for some adult themes and harsh dialogue. But even if its content is suitable for children, it’s more of an adult drama.