I take it as self-evident that to love cinema is to love Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, the comedy duo paired under the guidance of producer Hal Roach in the silent era and who made several wonderful short films before transitioning to sound and making several even more wonderful shorts and features in the 1930s. The best Laurel & Hardy films rank among the best screen comedies, period, a mixture of faultlessly choreographed slapstick, surprising verbal wit, and an underlying comradeship and love for craft that makes even the typical meanness of the form (their films general involve Hardy bullying Laurel and humiliation befalling them both) feel generous and warm.

This assumption is unhesitatingly shared by Stan & Ollie, a biopic of the duo that focuses on one short but important period of their career, a 1953-'54 tour of live shows in Great Britain and Ireland (it also includes a spurious prologue in 1937 that laboriously sets up the plot, and primarily serves to get the iconic "At the Ball, That's All" dance from Way Out West its inevitable cameo). It was an eventful trip, and Jeff Pope's screenplay makes it even more eventful by compressing some material, ginning up a crisis in the pair's relationship, and accelerated the decline of Hardy's health, but one thing that it doesn't quite get around to doing is making this dramatic. Instead, the film functions as a mixture of adoring cover band and fannish history, re-creating some routines for the pleasure of Laurel & Hardy's existing fans and loudly insisting upon the greatness of those routines for the edification of Laurel & Hardy's not-yet-fans, whom it clearly intends to produce. Any old biopic can do the "greatest hits" thing, but Stan & Ollie approaches "At the Ball, That's All" with a hushed admiration that resembles the reading of religious scripture more than the restaging of a beloved movie scene.

The film's trump card, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the cast. Stan is played by Steve Coogan, Ollie by John C. Reilly, and they are up to some of the best biopic mimicry I have seen in a long time. Not the cheap kind of mimicry. Coogan looks only incidentally like Laurel, and a substantial amount of moderately-convincing latex gets Reilly to looking a bit more like Hardy, and anyway, they look far more like those men at the height of their fame, rather than the weary, frequently-ill figures they cut in 1953. To be sure, they do a lot of direct copying of Laurel & Hardy's signature gestures and vocal cadences, but it never feels like a stunt: it's more that both Coogan and Reilly have endeavored to recreate the mental state of the comedians, and thus re-enacted their movements and delivery from the inside, rather than just replicated their surfaces. To put it in more concrete terms: anybody, including you or I, could figure out how to exactly copy Hardy's little tie-twiddling. Reilly has, from the feel of the thing, copied Hardy's mental path to executing the tie-twiddling, and thus it feels like a natural gesture rather than an affectation.

Whatever the hell it is, both stars feel like they're playing characters rather than impersonating celebrities, and in so doing flesh out Pope's script as much as it will ever be fleshed out. The bulk of the plot involves Stan lying about a Robin Hood movie he's trying to put together for the duo to star in, while Ollie lies about how tired he's feeling, all while they ply their trade in disappointingly small venues with meager audiences, assembled for them by the glad-handling Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). More of the things in that sentence aren't true than otherwise, but the film is looking to do something different than reportage; it is a study of an old friendship that was maybe never entirely secure, but has grown quite imperiled through misuse, ever since Ollie made Zenobia without Stan in 1939. Here again, the film is fudging madly: it never says, but would clearly be fine if we accidentally happened to believe, that Stan and Ollie haven't made a film together since Way Out West, and have seen only very little of each other in recent years. In fact, they made 13 features between 1938 and 1945, toured together after the war, and their final feature, the French-Italian production Atoll K (AKA Utopia) was only two years old when they began their third and final UK tour. They were, to be sure, hard-up for film projects, with their delicate brand of comedy a hard sell for postwar audiences (Stan & Ollie visualises this in one of its handful of impressively subtle moments, when Stan looks with obvious melancholy at a poster for the newest Abbott & Costello film), and the aging process making them uncertain bets for performing physical gags anyway.

At any rate, the film's willingness to be taken as good history despite its cheating runs a substantially distant second place to its greater interest to be a character sketch of two gentle-hearted souls. More than any tribute it pays to their specific comedy bits, Stan & Ollie professes its love for Laurel & Hardy by presenting them as big-hearted, feeling men, whose respect for each other was manifest in their craft. Its conflict, insofar as it has a conflict, is largely predicated on the idea that their friendship was a precious thing without which they would not have been the best comedy team in cinema history, and to lose that friendship would be personally devastating for them and aesthetically devastating for the rest of us.

It doesn't not work, I guess. Director Jon S. Baird stages the film to maximise our sense of these two men as completing each other: the opening shot finds finds them framed in mirrors such that it seems like each man is perched on the others' shoulders, and this begins a lengthy tracking shot inside and outside of soundstages that carefully keeps both men balanced in frame. Later on, any time we watch them perform, Baird exactly copies the visual codes of '30s comedy cinema relying on wide shots to show the two men playing off of each other, and cutting in only to showcase reaction shots. It's a simple, plain, and effective visual motif for suggesting how well they fit together.

That being said, while Stan & Ollie undoubtedly hits its goals, they are extraordinarily modest goals. By virtue of showing two people doing a magnificent job getting into the heads of two of cinema's finest comic performers, it is obviously funny (and gets funnier still when Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda show up as the boys' wives, upending the stock "nagging wife" formula that Laurel & Hardy themselves used from time to time, e.g. in the legendary Sons of the Desert). But it is not funnier than than watching the original films. Particularly given that it spends so damn much of its time pointing out how old and ill and sad the two men were: it is unmistakably serious-minded awards-courting drama more than it is funny, and the heaviness of the story doesn't really do anything. It's just pointing that yep, even funny people grow old and die. Meanwhile, every possible avenue for narrative momentum and conflict is buffed into oblivion, with problems resolving themselves almost immediately (having largely invented the notion of an impoverished, humiliating tour of the boonies, the film is compelled to resolve it by meekly suggesting "and then business picked up", and hastening to rapturous full houses in London). When the big blow-up between the two men happens (as it did not do in reality), it feels less like the culmination of tensions that have been building throughout the movie, and more like a late realisation that something has to happen in a movie.

It's all very sweetly sad, and God forbid I disagree with the central claim that Laurel & Hardy were one of the most perfect comedy teams in film history. It's pleasurable enough to watch, even if the pleasure is undercut by the morbidity. But there's simply not any there there; Coogan and Reilly may be up to more than mimicry, but the film isn't interested in delivering any more than mimicry. If Stan & Ollie is better than the average Oscarbait biopic, that is almost solely because it has chosen an impeccable subject to valorise, not because it actually does anything more with that subject than the same generic stuff.