THE THREE STOOGES – The Review
Every decade or so, one or two film makers become a major force in cinema comedies. The 1980′s saw the influence of ZAZ (AKA Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) starting with AIRPLANE! and RUTHLESS PEOPLE . For the last ten years or so Judd Apatow (40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN) and Todd Phillips (OLD SCHOOL) have ruled the comedy roost. In between there’s the Farrelly brothers (Peter and Bobby), former sitcom writers who invaded the multiplexes with the big box office laugh fests DUMB AND DUMBER and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (which opened the gates for the return of the R-rated movie comedy). When interviewed during their salad days, the guys related their affection for a decades old comedy team and vowed to bring them back to the big screen (they even appeared on a tribute NBC-TV special hosted by their KINGPIN star Woody Harrelson). After some recent under performing movie missteps (HALL PASS couldn’t connect with today’s raunchy comedy crowds), they’ve decided to finally put together their dream project/love letter. The end result is THE THREE STOOGES. Several fans of the trio have been quite vocal on the internet decrying this new film as sacrilege. They say that this will tarnish the good name of the classic comedians. Really? The Stooges? While they were still with us, the fellas did plenty of material that was not exactly sterling. Remember SNOW WHITE AND THE THREE STOOGES? What about the crudely produced 60′s cartoons (from the “Clutch Cargo” folks) with cheaply made color live-action intros? A decade later “The Three Robotic Stooges” from Hanna-Barbera (a real low point for HB-and that’s saying something!) premiered on CBS Saturday mornings. And the boys nearly co-starred in BLAZING STEWARDESSES (Emile Sitka was to replace the ailing Larry Fine, but Moe’s death put the kibosh on this!). So whether this should be done is beside the point. It’s here. Let’s see how it works as a film..
First, here’s a quick stooge history lesson (a Stooges 101). The Three Stooges were a comedy group assembled by vaudeville comic Ted Healy in the early 1920′s. They were Shemp Howard, his brother Moe, and wild-haired violinist Larry Fine. When Hollywood beckoned they were featured performers in a couple of Fox films. Shemp left the team for a solo career and was replaced by another Howard brother, Jerry AKA Curly. They made some features and shorts with MGM before the stooges split from Healy. Soon they were signed by the struggling Columbia Pictures for a series of short subjects (16 to 18 minute films sometimes called two reelers) over the course of 25 years! When Curly retired due to illness, brother Shemp came back to replace him. When Shemp died, veteran comic Joe Besser filled the spot till the final short in 1959. The advent of television had pretty much shuttered all the studios’ shorts departments. Looked like the end of the road for the trio. But suddenly TV made them more popular than ever! Columbia’s Screen Gems division sold the stooges shorts to local TV stations around the country during the heyday of the kiddie show host (usually aired during the afternoon with local ads, a live audience of youngsters, and assorted short cartoons). They were in demand again. Comic vet Joe DeRita (AKA Curly Joe) replaced Besser and the fellows packed stadiums, hit the TV variety shows, and even starred in new feature films from Columbia (beginning with HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL). No doubt the young Farrelly boys were glued to their sets watching the boys during this big resurgence. Sadly the last of the stooges, DeRita passed away in 1993.
In putting together this new screen romp, the Farrellys are aiming squarely for family audiences (the ads tout its PG rating) since the stooges’s rapid slapstick and cartoon look always connected with kids. Now this is not an autobiography of the team (been done), nor is it a period piece set during the stooges golden era (late thirties, early forties). It features the most popular trio 0f Moe, Larry, and Curly, set in today’s world with a good deal of topical humor. As in the Brady Bunch feature films, the stooges don’t quite seem to belong (Gene Siskel used to say that they were always out-of-place) in these modern settings which gives the film the old fish (or fishes) out of water premise. There’s one plot flowing through the film’s 90 minutes, but there are title cards and animation inserted to make it appear that three new short subjects have been strung together. The story harkens back to the plots of several of the old shorts. The boys leave the orphanage where they grew up (on the entrance sign it states “est. 1934″, the same year as the release of the first stooge short, WOMAN HATERS-nice inside joke) in order to raise $830,000 and save it from closing (shades of THE BLUES BROTHERS). They get into many mishaps along the way and get entangled in a plot to do away with the rich husband of a femme fatale’ (Sofia Vergara). Although they’re in 2012, the stooges remain in somewhat familiar story territory.
Quite a lot of publicity has been stirred up by the Farrellys about the casting of the comic icons. Russell Crowe is Moe. Now it’s Benicio Del Toro. Sean Penn’s a lock as Larry. He’s out, Paul Giamotti’s in. Jim Carrey’s gonna wear prosthetics and a fat suit to be Curly. Nope, maybe Jack Black will shave his head. Finally three TV vets were cast who bring a great deal of energy and skill in re-creating the trio (hard to imagine those higher-profile stars doing a better job). The real discovery is Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe (Chris is a vet of several TV shows including “24″). He’s quick-tempered, easily frustrated, and dishes out punishment (and takes a lot) with authority. Surprisingly he shows some vulnerability and tenderness in a couple of scenes (A sensitive Moe!). His nicknames for by-standers (he calls a stout matron “Jumbotron”) are a hoot! The biggest star of the three may be Sean Hayes who got an Emmy for his work as Jack on the long-running “Will and Grace”. He displays his expert comic timing as the frizzy-haired Larry. While in the old shorts Larry would blend into the background, Hayes’s Larry gives the film some of its biggest laughs. And he can take a smack almost as well as the original. Interesting side note: both actors played comedians in TV bio films. Diamantopoulos played Robin Williams in “Behind the Camera: the Unauthorized Story of ‘Mork and Mindy’” while Hayes was Jerry in “Martin and Lewis.” And then there’s perhaps the most beloved and imitated stooge. Curly is played by the former “MadTV” cast member Will Sasso. He more than brings the required manic energy to the role, while reproducing the child-like nature of the groups’ wide-eyed innocent. Curly always seemed to be off on another dimension from his two pals and Sasso gets that, too. I was concerned about his being taller than his team mates, but that was not an issue after a few minutes in. During several sequences, the actors are like a well oiled machine as they engage in a rapid bopping, eye-poking, slapping whirlwind worthy of a top drill team or dance troupe. There have been several recreations on TV of the boys over the years: SCTV (with the legendary John Candy as Curly), ABC’s Fridays (with Larry David as Larry!), Fox’s In Living Color, and the ABC bio movie (produced by Mel Gibson), but Chris, Sean, and Will are the best yet.
And the guys have some great supporting players (besides the talented youngsters that play the trio at age ten). The biggest scene stealer has to be Larry David as the orphanage’s Sister Mary Mengele. Excitable and full of fury, he holds his own against the stooges and several overly cloying orphans (guess the kids are there for young audience identification. Seemed like a lot of forced pathos). Craig Bierko is terrific as the sap who enlists the stooges in the murder plot, but then suffers the most abuse from them. Vergara is as lovely as she is on “Modern Family,” but here we get to see her ruthless side as a variation of the classic double (and triple) crossing film noir bombshell. The other ladies don’t have as much to work with. Jennifer Hudson gets to belt a bit of gospel as one of the nuns, but spends the rest of her time responding the boys’ antics. The real waste is the great Jane Lynch in the somber, bland role of Mother Superior (one of the best comic actors working today, and she doesn’t get to crack wise?). There’s a welcome cameo from Bill Murray’s brother Brian as a priest and a very satisfying sequence involving the cast of a much reviled (but strangely popular) reality TV show (perhaps cathartic is more appropriate). A few moments lag, but there’s a whole lotta’ fun packed in these ninety minutes ( try to stick around for the end credits music video ). You might find yourself laughing more than the kids. Like the Farrellys, I watched those black and white gems on my favorite TV host’s show (hey Cactus Pete’s Funny Company!) and this new film gave me some nostalgic amusement. There’s some clever sight gags and slapstick along with clever riffs on time-tested bits. It’s silly and crude, but I laughed a lot in spite of my “adult sophistication.” You stooge-iphiles need not worry. This is a film that captures the spirit of the old classics and is filled with affection for those ’chowder-heads.’ Should you give this flick a look? Why ‘soitenly’!