Friday, April 13, 2012


Though they were on TV all the time, The Three Stooges shorts were never favorites of mine when I was a kid. There was something oppressive about the drab, monochrome world they inhabited. The constant, daunting work, for which they were ill-suited and at which they were existentially fated to fail, the incessant, tedious beatings, and browbeatings, of the mild by the aggressive—it was, perhaps, a little too much like school for my taste.

It was only as an “adult” that I came to appreciate the skill, precision and occasional anarchy of the Stooges at their best. Sometime in the ‘80s I saw 1940’s A-Plumbing We Will Go at a theatre, tacked onto the bill of some feature, and suddenly the slapstick, with its tinge of surrealism, was hilarious, and the characterizations unsentimental and brilliant.

Whether or not they’re your cup of tea, the Stooges are show-business history—their enduring, now iconic popularity is a direct link to vaudeville, and a testament to the indestructibility of that style. Now the Farrelly Brothers have made it to the multiplexes with their long-delayed feature film The Three Stooges, an unironic attempt to re-create the act’s best-loved vintage for a modern audience.

In various combinations, the Stooges were popular in the theatre from the mid-‘20s. They were in movies from the early ‘30s, first at Fox and MGM, often in support of their old vaudeville top banana Ted Healy, and then on their own at Columbia in a series of relentlessly cranked-out, insanely profitable short subjects, and into the ‘60s on TV and in a string of mostly dismal features. But it was the first Columbia line-up—Moe Howard as the mean, morose alpha male, bossing around frizzy-haired, soft-spoken Larry Fine and Jerome “Curly” Howard as the manic, childlike wild card—that have proved pop-culture immortals.

In the Farrellys’ Three Stooges, after early scenes depicting the trio as boys in an orphanage, the gifted Sean Hayes, here top-billed, plays Larry, while stage and TV journeyman Chris Diamantopolous plays Moe and sketch-comedy vet Will Sasso plays Curly. The story, strung across three episodes—each with its own “Three Blind Mice” title sequence—is a standard raising-money-to-save-the-orphanage pretext, basically the same used in The Blues Brothers. It allows for episodes at a zoo, a hospital, a fancy party, and on the set of Jersey Shore. Eventually, the boys are duped into a murder plot.

It’s a perfectly acceptable, loose approach, but obviously there’s only one really relevant question—is it funny? Well, part of me wishes I could honestly say that this movie didn’t make me laugh, not because I’m ashamed of liking lowbrow humor, but because I’d almost prefer if the Stooges’ comedy was irrecoverable, except from the original films.

But this movie did make me laugh, much more than I expected it to, and I wasn’t laughing alone at the screening. There’s no question that it’s ersatz; while the leads are impressive—Hayes even manages to bring a nice touch of delicacy to some of his line readings—no one would mistake their polished impressions for the hardscrabble authenticity of the real Stooges. Yet somehow this doesn’t matter. The routines work anyway, just like they did in the later movies with Shemp and Joe Besser and “Curly Joe” DeRita, just like they did onstage before Curly joined the act. Without Curly they aren’t magical, and neither is the new film, but these shticks were built to last, and they still get their laughs honestly.

It should also be said that there are other strong performances in the film, notably by Larry David, in nun drag as the venomous “Sister Mary Mengele,” and by Sofia Vergara as a villainous femme fatale—her horrified mugging every time the Stooges make another inopportune reappearance is pretty amusing.

Finally, the now-obligatory “Kids, don’t try this at home” disclaimer at the end is cleverly handled.

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