The new Farrelly brothers' movie successfully channels the silly charms of Larry, Curly, and Moe.
Every once in a while, a film finds exactly who it needs to carry out its specific and singular vision. Think Terminator, which cast real-life monotone robot Arnold Schwarzenegger as a monotone robot, or Funny People, in which sellout comedian Adam Sandler played a sellout comedian. The same serendipity applies to The Three Stooges—a feature-length film based on a long-running series about three idiots bludgeoning each other, which hits theaters today: It found the perfectly average, slapstick-happy directors to fulfill its modest ambitions: Peter and Bobby Farrelly.
The Farrelly brothers, who peaked with 1994's stupid-smart Dumb and Dumber and have spent the rest of their careers trying to equal it, are striking at the very origins of slapstick with The Three Stooges. It's not hard to see why; The Three Stooges is, after all, the slapstick Rosetta Stone on which they've built their filmmaking careers (Jim Carrey's Dumb and Dumber bowl cut is just one of many Stooges references they've snuck into their oeuvre).
"The Three Stooges," along with Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, are one of the few classic-comedy teams to have earned a lasting place in America's collective pop-culture consciousness. They also hold up the worst; though the tricky wordplay of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?"still sings, beloved "Stooges" shorts like "Disorder in the Court" feel repetitive and draggy after more than one viewing. With "Disorder in the Court and 219 other film appearances between 1930 and 1970, the "Three Stooges" established themselves as the most reliable source for manic, comedic violence outside of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. But the 1975 deaths of founding Stooges Moe Howard and Larry Fine spelled the end of new Stooge material, other than a 2000 made-for-TV biopic (starring a pre-The Shield Michael Chiklis as Curly). Though the merchandizing machine kept rolling, the Three Stooges were, for all intents and purposes, retired.
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Until now—if America will accept these big-screen doppelgangers as the Stooges' next generation. Whatever the faults of The Three Stooges, it's hard not to admire the Farrellys' passion; they tried to bring Larry, Moe, and Curly to the silver screen for over a decade before finally succeeding (and I use the term generously) with today's film. In its seemingly endless round to production, The Three Stooges' behind-the-scenes reports have held the horror and fascination of train wreck; as recently as 2009, Variety reported that the Stooges would be played by Sean Penn, Jim Carrey, and Benicio del Toro—a trio of actors so random that The Three Stooges sounded less like a coherent movie and more like a bizarre, celebrity-themed game of Mad Libs. Unfortunately, a Three Stooges adaptation starring Harvey Milk, Ace Ventura, and Che Guevara proved too wonderfully bizarre to be true. As the A-list actors departed The Three Stooges one by one, they were replaced by D-Listers: Chris Diamantopoulos (24), Sean Hayes (Will and Grace), and Will Sasso (MADtv). Though they're passable look-and-soundalikes, Diamantopoulos, Hayes, and Sasso are at best the Salieri to the original Stooges' Mozart: They know all the notes, but they can't make the music.
The rest of the film follows suit. The Farrellys aren't likely to win any new "Stooges"fans with the film, but they probably won't anger the old ones, either. The Three Stooges apes the original shorts in format, dividing its 92-minute runtime into three segments—complete with punny title cards—and building its zany setpieces around a wafer-thin "save the orphanage" plot that serves primarily as the mechanism for mayhem. Even its decidedly un-famous backup cast makes it more faithful to the original films; "The Three Stooges" was always bigger than the actual Stooges, which actually consisted of six different men over the years, after 1952 Curly's death necessitated the reinstatement of founding Stooge Shemp Howard and later replacements Joe Besser and "Curly" Joe DeRita.In its supporting cast, The Three Stooges wastes comedians as talented as Jane Lynch, whose Mother Superior says nothing that even resembles a joke, and Larry David, who plays a screechy nun repeatedly victimized by the Stooges' antics. But even this seemingly bizarre choice is in the spirit of a whole-hearted Stooge homage, since none of the supporting characters in the original "Three Stooges" films were given anything funny to do either. The real draw here is wacky, consequence-free violence, which The Three Stooges features extensively - complete with all the groan-worthy puns and "nyuck-nyuck-nyucks" of yore.
With all that it emulates from its slapstick predecessor, The Three Stooges adds two elements to the Stooges format: toilet humor and pop-culture references. Neither is an improvement. There was nothing highbrow about the original "Three Stooges" -that was pretty much the point - but however puerile things became, none of them featured anything as creepy or tasteless as the new film, which features an extended scene of the Stooges using urinating babies as "pee shooters." Even more irritating are The Three Stooges' multiple concessions to the modern-day setting, which includes an extended—and already dated—appearance by the cast of Jersey Shore. (This cameo would have been a better fit for an Abbott and Costello movie; they've already survived Frankenstein and the Mummy, so a few more monsters probably wouldn't be a problem.)
But the biggest and most telling change to the The Three Stooges comes in a scene that appears just before the credits roll, which doesn't feature the Stooges—or any of the movie's other characters. In a weird, meta coda to the film, actors playing "Peter and Bobby Farrelly" appear, turning to the camera and speaking directly to the children in the audience. "Kids, do not poke anyone in the eye," says one to the other, as they bend their flexible rubber hammers for the audience to see before painlessly bopping each other on the forehead. It's a fascinatingly modern concession to a culture that's grown increasingly warning label-happy—a sign of how the times have a-changed in the 40 years since new Stooges films have been produced.
And maybe that's how it should have stayed—a warmly remembered (and frankly overrated) relic of a bygone era. We didn't really need a new "Three Stooges" movie—we have 220 old ones—but The Three Stooges is a passable entry in the "Stooges" canon. Then again, making a competent Three Stooges movie is like making a great McDonald's hamburger. You can put in the effort, but the bar for success is already pretty low—and even if you clear it, have you really accomplished much?