Laughs on tap: ‘Stan & Ollie’ proves Steve Coogan’s certainly no lightweight

A biopic of comedy duo 'Stan & Ollie' has led to Oscar predictions for John C Reilly as Hardy, but Coogan shouldn't be overlooked

How much John C Reilly is too much John C Reilly? The cuddly character actor has been unavoidable at the movies recently after causing significant delays on the information superhighway in Ralph Breaks The Internet and making bedroom eyes at a haughty Queen Victoria in haphazard spoof Holmes & Watson. In this week’s Stan & Ollie there’s even more of him than usual thanks to some Michelin Man midriff padding and an impressive bullfrog jowl prosthetic. Top it all off with a toothbrush ’tache and Reilly becomes the absolute spitting image of Oliver Hardy, opposite Steve Coogan making the most of some sticky-out ears as his slapstick soulmate Stan Laurel.

The actual origin story of one of cinema’s greatest double-acts might make for a good film someday. Nudged into an arranged comedic marriage by savvy mogul Hal Roach, Hardy and Laurel’s unerring gifts for physical comedy and archetypal distinctions – a roly-poly social climber and a skinny ninny – turned them into superstars. Stan & Ollie offers a tantalising glimpse of the pair at the height of their fame with an extended single-take opening sequence that shadows them all the way from their dressing room to the cowboy ranch set of their 1937 hit Way Out West.

It’s the sort of magic-of-the-movies Hollywood self-celebration still beloved by La La Land (and, indeed, La La Land), a walk-and-talk through a crowded backlot where stagehands roll elaborate painted backdrops past off-duty Roman centurions chatting up chorus line girls. As well as establishing some dramatic stakes – primarily a looming contract dispute with their pitiless boss Roach (Danny Huston) – it gives Stan & Ollie a thrilling initial charge of grandeur.

After that audacious opening, the action abruptly flashes forward to 1953 with the suddenly over-the-hill duo embarking on a tour of low-rent UK provincial theatres beginning in a plausibly benighted Newcastle. The faltering Ollie has been cajoled into this vaudeville comeback by the vague promise of some investment in a new Laurel & Hardy movie project, even though one look at Stan’s ferrety flopsweat whenever the subject comes up should ring some major alarm bells. From there, as the pair criss-cross the UK enduring the social indignities of being past-it stars but each still delighting in making the other crack up, it almost becomes a dowdy prequel to The Trip, albeit with added hats, harrumphing and a delightful moment when an oversized packing case rattles down some stairs.

The imminent arrival of their expectant spouses in London is pitched as a looming crisis to be overcome, but Stan & Ollie gets much richer once their better halves arrive. While their husbands struggle to break out of the long-established rhythms of their hopelessly intertwined bromance, imposing Russian diva Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and empathetic former script girl Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) help these lifelong friends finally confront some demons from their past just as things seem to be looking up.

By focusing on the last hurrah of a dazzling dual career, Stan & Ollie feels brisker than most cradle-to-grave biopics while still allowing director Jon S Baird ample time to linger on the stage performances. Some of the routines, such as the classic boiled-eggs-and-nuts hospital visit skit featuring a lot of business with Stan and a salt shaker, are familiar but artfully restaged. Other sketches – including a memorable doorway farce at a railway station – were never filmed but have been recreated by Reilly and Coogan from descriptions of the time. Baird, who previously directed the bad cop freakout Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, is happy to let them play out in full in long static shots, giving audiences at least some sort of simulacrum of what it might have been like to see these living legends in person.

So how much Reilly is too much Reilly? He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe as Hardy and will likely have his fingers crossed on January 22 when the Oscar nominations are announced. But the currently overlooked Coogan, an actor never afraid to appear unlikeable onscreen, finds an obsessional register for Stan – whose restless mind is always refining sketches or fretting over their comeback – that is just as impressive.

Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from January 11