Monday, April 23, 2012

The Three Amigos

If the trailer for The Three Stooges caught your attention in the past few months, you were probably in one of two groups. In one, you lambasted the very idea of bringing the antics of Moe, Larry and Curly to the big screen and a modern-day audience. The people on this side are generally those who never liked or in some cases have even seen any of the 220 short films the comedy troupe made between 1922 and 1975. Those on the other side of the line might not have been very excited about the new movie, but at least thought that some of the humor in the trailer was funny, and marveled at the apparent melding of the main actors into seamless copies of the three iconic characters. My parents (most notably my father) is of the former camp. Never a fan of the Stooges, dear old dad raised me on a steady diet of Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, comedians who succeeded not due to abrasive physical shenanigans, but clever dialogue and rapier wit. They were definitely the epitome of brilliant comedy. And yet I can't help but feel some admiration for the Three Stooges, whose shorts I sometimes caught on afternoon television when I was a kid. Their physical comedy was unlike anything I had ever seen, save perhaps for Wile E Coyote's numerous failed attempts to catch that pesky Road Runner, or Miss Piggy's backhand. In the end, that's why I decided to see the Farrelly Brothers' take on The Three Stooges; not because it would necessarily be good, but because it would be interesting to see how you would take an old-school property like the Stooges and turn them into something fans of modern comedy can appreciate.

No, they're not quite the same, but they ARE close...
After being raised in an orphanage for the entirety of their lives, Moe (Chris Diamantopolous) Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) live their lives with the nuns of the Sisters of Mercy, helping keep things maintained on the property. When a lack of funds means that the orphanage will be closed down, the trio strike out on their own, determined to make the $830,000 they need to save their home before the bank can foreclose on the land. But these three know nothing of the outside world, and their interaction with modern-day Los Angeles and each other make the already-arduous task far more difficult than it was to start.

Some of the many familiar faces of our youth...
After a painful (but necessary, thanks to the script) origin story that shows Moe, Larry and Curly as young boys, the film finally gets underway when it graduates to actually using the adult actors in the lead roles. The tale itself is reminiscent of many of the troupe's old sketches, in which the trio have a clear goal in mind and they are hampered in reaching that end by both normal obstacles and one another. Of course, this also illustrates the fact that those stories worked so well in short films because they were, well, short. Stretched out over the course of an hour and a half, the flaws with this storytelling method become more readily visible, with long stretches occurring in which nothing at all good or bad happens, and the film simply waits for the next plot point to rear its head. By the finale, it's obvious there was little for the Farrellys to work with, and it was up to the actors to make it all work.

"And THAT was for Shemp!"
As for those men who portray the historic comedy players... wow. Going in, I wasn't convinced that Diamantopolous, Hayes and Sasso would be able to emulate their characters in the same fashion as their mid-twentieth century counterparts, but before too long I was more than happy with what they were contributing to the tale. In preparing for these roles, the three mastered their predecessors' every vocalization, gesture and nuance in creating perfect copies of the Stooges. With their perfectly precise actions, their interactions (both physical and verbal) become flawless, a thing of beauty, and its obvious they had as much love if not more for the Stooges than their supervising directors. Sure the supporting cast might be clogged with mid-card mismatched talents as Sofia Vergara as the film's main antagonist, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson and Larry David as nuns, and Old Spice pitchman Isaiah Mustafa as a Hollywood agent, but it is those three who are the heart and soul of the film. Sure, this could be argued as mere imitation and not acting per se, but it's a good thing these three were up to the task, as anybody else would likely have gotten it wrong.

And THAT'S why we don't eat scorpions.
Anyone will tell you that the Three Stooges were an inspiration for whole generations of comedic actors, and it's easy to see why. Still, when compared to many today, the Stooges will still come out on top when it comes to physical humor. Remember, they never hit one another in the balls, like so many comedies these days do for cheap laughs (granted, There's Something About Mary's "We've got a bleeder" bit was classic). Nor did they use flatulence as a continual prop for lowbrow humor. Still, it's a shame that outside the physical department, The Three Stooges doesn't inspire a whole lot of laughs, especially when other characters in the film get in on the act. This shouldn't be all that surprising; the Farrelly Brothers haven't actually made a funny movie since 1998 (I only have fond memories of Fever Pitch because it centered on my beloved Red Sox), and there was no reason to think this would be any different. Still, the film has its moments, and the funniest moments have an unlikely source, as Moe takes his abuse out on the cast members of Jersey Shore. I admit, I am conflicted: do I love that the Jersey Shore brats get what's coming to them, or do I actually congratulate them on playing along? Regardless, the film relies far too much on its physical jokes to get by, and the entire thing feels more stupid than it should. It's only the obvious reverence the Farrellys carry for the Stooges that allows the film to rise above its limits and actually keep the audience engaged throughout.

Most... awkward hug... ever.
The Three Stooges is about what you might have expected were you fan of the original short films: a mediocre effort helmed by poor comedic directors that is surprisingly raised by the sheer personality and talent of its lead performers. It won't crack my Top 10, but neither will it suffer embarrassment in among the year's worst which, with Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts, looks to already sport some poor company. If you aren't already a fan of the Stooges, you can be assured that this film won't change your mind as to your discontent. However, if you genuinely loved the works of Moe, Larry, Curly and the other assorted comedians who filled in during their extensive run, you'll definitely have reason to visit the movie theater and see this on the big screen. It might not be the best Stooges film, but Diamantopolous, Hayes and Sasso do their best to remind you exactly why you loved the misbegotten adventures of yesteryear. And you'll love them for it.


Richard J. Marcej said...

See, I'm a huge fan of both The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges. Both groups always found a way to make me laugh. And that's the biggest disservice this film makes. It doesn't make the audience laugh. That being said, I would have been far more gracious with my grade ( but it's that annoying (IMO, insulting) P.S.A. they tagged at the end of the film that plunged it into "Ghost Rider" territory.

Mr. Anderson said...

I have to wonder if that PSA was something the studio forced on the Farrellys, but you're right in that it really drags down the film overall. It also doesn't help that the funniest line of dialogue is spoken by Snookie, either. But the PSA is more insulting because it speaks to the idea that the filmmakers didn't trust kids not to imitate the acts portrayed in the movie, as though they aren't smart enough to tell the difference between real and make believe. I found an interview of Moe Howard on Youtube in which he references a statement by a child psychologist saying that watching the Stooges show was no different than watching a Western to kids. Normal children will no more likely pick up a gun and shoot someone or poke someones eye out, no matter which they watch. It's only the isolated instances of problem children that would actually do these things, and that has nothing to do with what they watch at home.