Stan & Ollie fairly fine, kind of a mess

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      Starring Steve Coogan. Rated G

      The most remarkable thing about Stan & Ollie—a pleasant tonic for lovers of show-business lore—is watching two highly distinctive personalities meld with those of real-life figures who had their own lengthy heyday.

      In a fat suit and fairly convincing prosthetics, John C. Reilly plays Oliver Hardy, known as Babe to his much-partying friends. He serves as the more punctilious of a duo that became famous after each appeared separately in hundreds of silent comedies.

      With little alteration to hide behind, Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel, the English-born writer-intellectual of the duo (actually named Arthur Stanley Jefferson), but the hapless, infantile sap on-stage, getting Ollie into one fine mess after another.

      The amber-hued film begins in 1937, during their long tenure with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), and utterly fabricates a contractual showdown with him, and with each other.

      It’s preposterous to think that Roach, also remembered for the Our Gang pictures, would go out of his way to break up his biggest cash cow over an on-set money dispute. (Laurel was then receiving $3,500 a week in Depression-era dollars.)

      In reality, they stayed with him through a troubled studio change, until going out on their own in 1940.

      Entirely shot in England, the movie accurately suggests they were by then overshadowed by the more verbal humour of Abbott and Costello, but neglects to show that Roach had already turned them into the Two Stooges, emphasizing violent slapstick at the expense of their warmth and intrinsic humanity—“a bow and fiddle striking delightfully dissonant chords in a mad world,” as Time magazine described their 1930s output.

      On the eve of World War II, they looked downright primitive when compared to that all-new singing, dancing duo, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

      Our thick-thin pals, therefore, took the road to oblivion, as depicted in director Jon S. Baird’s somewhat slow-footed telling, built on an overlaboured script from Jeff Pope, whose Philomena was so nicely matched with Coogan’s drier talents.

      The film follows their 1953 tour of the British Isles, again making the trip look a lot more dour than it actually was. (The London climax was watched live on BBC TV by six million people, although the tape has been lost.)

      The determined miserablism here extends to a syrupy orchestral score which has the effect of having Stan and Ollie’s own sweet, Hawaiian-tinged numbers sound upbeat by contrast.

      Similarly, the tale depends on tiny Shirley Henderson and brassy Nina Arianda as the duo’s embattled but genuinely supportive mates, and Camping’s Rufus Jones as their sly tour impresario for intermittent wake-up calls.

      But seriously, should a movie about Laurel and Hardy require comic relief? This one certainly does.