In the late 1930s, comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were about the biggest stars on the planet. We're talking Beatlemania levels of fandom—they were mobbed in the streets by screaming fans. But by the time World War II had concluded, Laurel and Hardy's sheen had faded, and a 1953 tour of a post-war United Kingdom undertaken as a moonshot attempt at re-breaking into film proved to be the final chapter of their careers.

This lesser-known tour is examined up close in Stan & Ollie from filmmaker Jon S Baird (HBO's Vinyl), a sad yet hopeful biopic that eschews comedy for the most part (though there are certainly laughs) for a darker look at waning stardom and the closing out of a particular era in Hollywood. Here we see the nitty gritty of Laurel and Hardy's later lives, from the impact of lost fame and the pressures of consistently being "on" to lingering resentment born from Hardy's having worked with a different partner in the infamous 1939 film Zenobia.

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly disappear completely into their respective roles, masterfully phasing between the archetypical art of comedy—blueprints drawn by Laurel and Hardy themselves, among others—and regular people clinging to scraps of fame. Reilly as Hardy in particular proves without question that he's grown into one of the finer actors of our time. Coogan's tender portrayal of Laurel isn't far behind, however, and the film truly excels in portraying how much these men loved one another, even to the near detriment of their careers. Their chemistry is at times electric.

"I'll miss us when we're gone," Reilly says plainly to Coogan in one particularly moving scene; a simple moment conveyed so resonantly that we almost overlook Coogan's response: "So will you," he says, the hint of a smile on his face. Stan & Ollie is full of these exchanges, and smartly so.

This helps us forgive early missteps in pacing or the glaring concern that those unfamiliar with the duo's work might find it hard to connect with the gravity of the film. That's partly good news, though, because if you don't know their work, now's a great time to start. Especially since Stan & Ollie is sure to make waves come Oscar time, and even if we aren't sure it merits a Best Picture win, we're officially on team Reilly from here on out … assuming he ratchets back the awful Will Ferrell movies.

8
+Lesser-known chapter in comedy history; wonderful performances
-Potentially less meaningful for the uninitiated

Stan & Ollie
Directed by Baird
With Coogan and Reilly
Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown, PG-13, 97 min.