The great paradox of biopics about comedians is that the comedy itself seldom holds up. This raises the question of what the big deal was, but Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie mostly overcomes this problem thanks to how fully Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly embody the title characters. It also helps that the picture focuses on the tail end of their career, as Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) are on a tour of music halls in the United Kingdom in 1953. Ollie clearly isn’t long for the world, but he has faith that Stan is about to close a production deal on their dream film, while Stan has never quite forgiven Ollie for having done a movie without him nearly 15 years earlier.
What makes Stan & Ollie thoroughly modern is that while it’s unapologetically a love story between the title characters — “Babe” was everyone’s nickname for Ollie, but still has more weight coming from Stan — the film gives nearly as much screen time to their wives as to their husbands, who were no less important in their lives. And if the ending is necessarily bittersweet, Stan & Ollie opens with the most welcome trope of old-timey movie biopics: the unbroken dolly shot through a bustling studio backlot. It’s all gravy after that.
Rated PG. Opens Friday at the Clay Theater.