Silver Screen: The Three Stooges ***
There’s no legitimate argument for remaking the Three Stooges. Especially in this era of cinematic dé jà vu, when nearly every new release is something we’ve seen before, it can’t help but feel like another retread dreamed up by a studio marketing department.
That said, if the Stooges had to be revamped-- and let’s remember that they did not-- Peter and Bobby Farrelly are the directors to do it. The creators of Dumb and Dumber are deft (in a blunt sort of way) with lowbrow comedy, and their stock in trade has long been lovable losers with hearts of gold and brains of pyrite. And though my Movie Critic Card will almost certainly be revoked for this heresy, their mostly faithful spin on the Stooges is pretty damn funny.
The origin of the Three Stooges isn’t something we really needed to know, but here it is: The three boys are tossed out of a moving car as babies, bound up together in a dirty duffel bag. The nuns who run an orphanage take in the trio of wisenheimers (played nicely as youngsters by Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, and Robert Capron), but unsurprisingly are unable to find them a suitable home. The boys grow up to be maladjusted maintenance men at their adopted home for the unadopted, at least until money woes threaten to shut the place down. Determined not to let the nuns who raised them and the kids they’ve befriended be kicked out onto the street, the Stooges venture out into the real world in an attempt to scrape together $830,000 to save the orphanage.
From there the utterly non-essential plot expands to include a scheming black widow (Sofia Vergara) plotting with her goofball lover (Craig Bierko) to bump off her husband and steal a fortune, the grownup childhood chum of the boys who was chosen over them for adoption (Kirby Heyborne), an angry lion in captivity, and the reality-TV industry. It’s all just an excuse to put the boys into a variety of comic setpieces: They cause trouble in a hospital, at the zoo, and most importantly, at a stuffy party full of elitists. Though nominally the three acts of the movie are subtitled as individual Stooges shorts, it’s really these smaller scenes, about five minutes or so apiece, that play like the vintage quick comedy bits that made the Stooges famous.
When the movie works, which it does more often than not, the Farrellys truly capture the essence of the Stooges in all their live-action cartoon glory. It’s all there--the sound effects, the puns, the one-liners, and of course a litany of eye-pokes, head bonks, punches, stomps, and hair-pulls. It’s zany slapstick mayhem, executed with real verve by the three leads. Sean Hayes, the most prominent of the three performers, does solid work as Larry, but he’s the weak link compared to Will Sasso’s delightful Curly and Chris Diamantopoulos’s spot-on Moe. Diamantopoulos gets most of the good lines and sells them perfectly, while former Mad TV star Sasso is both outlandishly broad and graceful as the stoogiest Stooge.
They’re backed up by a solid supporting cast that includes Jane Lynch as the Mother Superior, Jennifer Hudson in a bit part as a singing Catholic sister, and Brian Doyle-Murray as an irritable priest begging for comeuppance. But the real treat is the great Larry David as Sister Mary Mengele. The Farrellys make no effort to disguise him as a woman, just stuffing the irascible David into a habit and setting him loose as the world’s angriest Mother Inferior.
What comes through in the Farrellys’ loving adaptation is that the Stooges’ comedy is timeless. The writer/directors wisely don’t overplay that these are pre-World War II creations living in a world of iPads and Facebook. A couple of tossed-off gags aside, the movie is blissfully free of meta-humor and fanboy in-jokes (three cheers for no blatant references to Shemp!). It would be inconceivable to try to make a modernized Marx Brothers movie with stand-ins for Groucho and the gang, but in its best moments the Farrellys’ film is a tribute to the enduring charms of Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard.
The movie has as many missteps as pratfalls, however. Particularly egregious is the reality-TV subplot that winds up enmeshing Moe with the cast of the Jersey Shore. It’s a big joke that feels stale before it’s done being told, and it agonizingly drags on, with ghastly attempts at physical comedy from Snookie and her whole bronzered posse. And occasionally the Farrelly brothers can’t help but Farrelly-up the movie with their trademark grossout gags, here mostly involving baby urine and farts, but even in a world of puerile humor they’re stupidly dissonant.
Still, give the Farrellys credit: They genuinely pulled it off. It’s a movie most people will probably avoid and plenty of people will hate, but who cares? It’s funny.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.