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Review: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly bring Laurel and Hardy to life in ‘Stan & Ollie’

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Steve Coogan, left, as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy in the movie “Stan & Ollie.”
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Propelled by lovely, engaging writing and wonderful performances, “Stan & Ollie,” the story of the bittersweet final bow of legendary duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, should move and delight fans of the beloved performers while enjoyably exposing the less initiated to these comedy giants.

Director Jon S. Baird, working from a nicely dimensional script by Jeff Pope, keeps the action — and the actors — gentle and modulated, yet also vivid and lively as he moves us through a stretch in 1953 when Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) reunited for a European music-hall tour.

First, however, we meet the comedians in their 1937 Hollywood heyday, cranking out movies for tight-fisted studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston), who, irascible ways aside, had the foresight 10 years earlier to team the British Laurel and the American Hardy, already individually established film actors.

But impending pay and contract issues plus Hardy’s go-along-to-get-along stance versus Laurel’s more confrontational, business-oriented approach foreshadow the pair’s rockier road ahead.

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Jump to 16 years later as the stars of such classic features as “Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland” and the first-ever Oscar-winning short, “The Music Box,” find themselves yesterday’s news due to, among other things, changing audience tastes and the advent of television. Briefly referenced health and alcohol issues may have also factored in.

Eager to regain their massive popularity, the never-say-die comics sign on with quicksilver producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) for a series of stage shows that will take Stan and Ollie (a.k.a. “Babe”) across Britain and Ireland, slowly reengage them with their fans and test the bonds of their complicated, if deeply close, relationship. It is, at heart, a love story.

The tour begins in a wry, how-the-mighty-have-fallen string of humble hotel rooms, sparsely attended performances in undersize venues, and the general assumption that Laurel and Hardy are retired. But when the game duo jump into a wave of well-timed publicity stunts at Delfont’s behest, they start playing big houses, selling out shows and recapturing the limelight. (Despite Laurel’s efforts, a return to movies in a satirical “Robin Hood” proves elusive.)

It’s also here, in precisely reenacted skits involving a hospital visit, hard-boiled eggs, double doors and more — all introduced with the duo’s signature tune, “The Cuckoo Song” — that the film provides its biggest laughs, reminding us just how physically adept and uniquely funny these artists could be. Add in the oft-repeated, loving re-creation of their saloon-steps soft-shoe from “Way Out West,” and the extent of Laurel and Hardy’s infectious, engaging talent is undeniable.

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Not enough can be said about Reilly and Coogan’s astonishingly good performances, as they channel their famed characters with a perfect mix of affection, pluck, savvy and bittersweet emotion, as well as terrific comic timing and vocal mimcry. Reilly is particularly poignant as he soldiers through the rotund Hardy’s worsening health.

Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson are also first-rate playing, respectively, Laurel’s fourth wife, ex-Hollywood dancer Ida, and Hardy’s third spouse, Lucille, a former studio script girl. Traveling together for their husbands’ London shows — and ensconced at the classy Savoy Hotel — the women hilariously evoke a kind of more capable, less compatible “Lucy and Ethel” as they jockey for position and protect their men at all costs. Arianda especially steals her scenes as the brash, bossy, Russian-born Ida.

A special shout-out must go to Jeremy Woodhead’s hair and makeup design and Mark Coulier’s prosthetic makeup effects, which help transform Coogan and Reilly into spot-on replications of their true-life counterparts. Guy Speranza’s costumes and John Paul Kelly’s production design are also fine.

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‘Stan & Ollie’

Rated: PG, for some language, and for smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles

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