Defending the Indefensible: The Three Stooges

Has there ever been a less promising idea for a movie than Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s The Three Stooges? Could anyone have anticipated such a scrupulously faithful, high-spirited result? The Farrellys famously struggled to make their Stooges movie for over a decade, and one point with a dream-team of Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey as Moe, Larry and Curly. Many of us sneered at the seemingly third-rate cast they ended up with, but the Farrellys have the last laugh now. With Sean Penn as Larry, the film could never have been better than the conceptual trainwreck it seemed doomed to be, but the final product is no art-school lark like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. For all intents and purposes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso become the Stooges, and the Farrellys succeed by simply making a Three Stooges movie.

The Three Stooges (which released on DVD and Blu-ray this past Tuesday) begins unpromisingly with the Stooges’ childhood days, where we see them terrorizing the nuns (including a zesty Larry David as Mother Superior) and prospective parents at a Catholic orphanage. The trio of child actors (Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz and Robert Capron) are impressive mimics, though when it comes to kids imitating the Three Stooges, your mileage may vary. But after the initial shock of seeing the grown-up Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso in the familiar haircuts, the film bursts into action with their first comic set-piece – a hilarious, sustained piece of stupidity chronicling the Stooges’ failed attempt at fixing the orphanage’s bell tower. There’s something liberating about the Farrellys’ unapologetic leap into complete silliness. They don’t try to win any converts, they never act too hip, and they don’t try to reinvent the source material. Their Stooge movie proudly embraces its disreputable origins.

The actors don’t look much like their subjects, but are astonishingly good at replicating them: Diamontopoulos gets Moe’s fast-paced Brooklynese bark, Sasso captures Curly’s id-driven energy, and Hayes succeeds at replicating the cheery, nasal tenor of Larry, the hardest Stooge to imitate. Apart from their technical accuracy, what’s miraculous is how easily they make us forget about Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Jerome ‘Curly’ Howard. They have an easy chemistry and deftness at complicated physical comedy, as evidenced by the longest slap-fight in Stooge history and a throwaway gag where they literally wrap around each other to pose for a picture. They somehow recapture the sense that these three men are bound together, in a bond that transcends love and hate. Whatever it was that made the Stooges endure, these guys have found it.

For all the cartoon violence, this PG-rated comedy is more upbeat than the original shorts, and it’s this sunniness that makes it more than just a skillful tribute act. Like The Muppets, The Three Stooges has the infectious spirit of a well-funded piece of fan-fiction, specifically designed to answer to the kind of questions that Stooge fans ask half-jokingly. Why does Moe, the smartest of the Stooges, stick with Larry and Curly? What would happen if Larry and Curly lost him? Where do these men come from? What if Moe found himself in the context of a modern-day reality TV show? (An unfortunate collision between Ronnie Oritz-Magro and a cheese grater, it turns out). Bless ‘em, the Farrellys even know enough to pay equal attention to Larry, that most underutilized Stooge.

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The plot, incidentally, involves the Stooges’ quest to raise money to save their orphanage. They head to the city, become entangled in a wealthy woman’s scheme to murder her husband, rub elbows with Snooki and company, etcetera. This familiar material is arbitrarily divided into three short films (“More Orphan Than Not,” “The Bananas Split,” and “No Moe Mister Nice Guy,” in case you were curious), and it’s too bad the Farrellys didn’t think of anything more interesting to do with the structure since the title cards could be removed without changing the plot even slightly. Also unfortunate is how the Farrellys’ decision to place the Stooges in a Catholic orphanage robs them of their Jewishness, a trait that gave charge to their anti-Nazi shorts You Nazty Spy! (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1941).

Does The Three Stooges have other flaws? Soitenly – and yet, oddly enough, most of the imperfections feel integral to the fabric. Unlike the Marx Brothers, who could more or less coexist with sappy love stories and lavish production numbers, the Stooges seemed straitjacketed in dreary musicals like Swing Parade of 1946 and Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). The Stooges’ brand of crude, violent slapstick was best when the shorts were indifferently-shot, clumsily edited, and haphazardly written so that plot strands were left dangling unresolved. The Farrellys give us a more standard three-act structure, but one so perfunctory it could have been cranked out by the Columbia Short Subjects department in 1936. Throw in the amiably chintzy production values and cartoon villains (Sofia Vergara and Craig Bierko, gesticulating wildly) and The Three Stooges is exactly the kind of non-transcendent tribute the Stooges deserve. Would you want it any other way? Waddayou, some kinda wiseguy?

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