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Film Reviews Review: Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie tells an old joke, and forgets the punchline, too

John C. Reilly, left, as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie.

Aimee Spinks/Entertainment One

Stan & Ollie

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Written by: Jeff Pope

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Starring: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly

Classification: PG

Length: 97 minutes

rating

Stan & Ollie opens with an unbroken six-minute tracking shot, a bold and eventually puzzling declaration on the part of director Jon S. Baird. The single-take trick – which follows comic icons Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, respectively) as they weave their way past showgirls and assistants to a studio set – implies a heightened level of visual prowess to follow. This, the prologue suggests, will be no mere standard-issue showbiz biopic.

Scratch that. Quickly after Baird makes an impression, he abandons any ambition of style, with the rest of the film so drab and flat as to suggest no real direction at all. For a movie focused on two of the most influential performers in comedy history, it feels like an especially cruel joke – and not even the punchiness of its two stars can help the thing land.

While Coogan and Reilly do their absolute best – the latter, in his third odd-couple pairing within the past four months after Holmes & Watson and The Sisters Brothers, is typically compelling – their dedication to character and obvious passion for Laurel and Hardy’s legacy can only do so much with the material on hand.

Jeff Pope’s script traces the pair’s late-career, 1953 reunion tour, which should provide plenty of dramatic tension as old wounds reopen, yet it’s mostly a breezy, dramatically inert affair. And although Baird surrounds his stars with eager supporting players – including Rufus Jones’s snaky theatrical promoter – every shot outside of the opening is dimly imagined, every narrative beat telegraphed with a syrupy and frankly cheap-sounding score.

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As Laurel and Hardy learn by the end of the film, every gig is an opportunity. Good on Coogan and Reilly for possessing the same workhorse mentality – and better luck next time, boys.

Stan & Ollie opens Jan. 18 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

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