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STAN & OLLIE: An overlooked gem

Just because you’re fond of the subject in a given movie, that’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy the film itself. There are plenty of lawyers who hate courtroom dramas, and plenty of physicians don’t like movies about doctors either.

So maybe my affection for Laurel & Hardy isn’t the only thing that made me love “Stan & Ollie”; but it sure didn’t hurt.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the titular pair, once the most famous comic duo in the world. This splendid new biopic focuses on the end of their career, when they’re reduced to mild-mannered stage shows on a 1953 tour of the British Isles -- all the while scraping for funds to make another feature.

For fans of Laurel and Hardy, this film’s chief merit is the uncanny resemblance between the actors and their real-life counterparts. And it’s not just appearance (regarding which, by the by, I don’t even want to know how they gave Reilly such generous jowls -- and that bulbous double chin!); no, the two also cook up a charming nostalgic feast, re-capturing the pair’s body language, their accents, their well-known mannerisms -- and, perhaps best of all, the loyalty that somehow kept peeping out amid all the mayhem, abuse and slapstick chaos.

Indeed, “Stan & Ollie” stresses similarities between the duo’s onscreen personae and their real lives. Throughout the tour, Laurel and Hardy are constantly mugging for the public -- even when that public is a single person, as in the winsome scene when the two check into a low-rent motel, with a bumbling comic routine right out of their onscreen repertoire. Late in the film, when the pair have a rather public falling out, onlookers can’t help wondering whether it’s all just part of the act.

It’s a shame writer Jeff Pope never gives Stan and Ollie a chance to hash out and resolve the long-term resentments articulated in this quarrel; instead, it all gets swept under the rug. Nonetheless, you won’t soon see another scene as beautifully written and acted as this one.

Non-fans of Laurel and Hardy may find the movie slow, as it isn’t driven by any central conflict, but hangs instead on more mundane concerns about ticket sales, squabbling wives and Ollie’s failing health. But all this is enough to keep the tale afloat, together with excellent period detail and a few enchanting stage routines that remind us why these two were so beloved around the world.

And speaking of non-fans: If you count yourself among that unfortunate group, then for heaven’s sake cue up some shorts on YouTube (“Two Tars” and “The Music Box” are both safe bets). If “Stan & Ollie” does nothing more than create a few new fans, it will have done its duty.

For those of us already on board, this is, shall we say, one fine kettle of fish.

“Stan & Ollie,”

directed by Jon S. Baird

Run time: 98 min.

* * * 1/2 (out of four)

Rated PG for some language and smoking

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