There's no getting around it - in the long and questionable history of unnecessary movies, this one has to rank near the top of that list. The thought of three new actors dressed up in iconic Moe, Larry & Curly hair & wardrobe, mimicking all-too-familiar antics in today's world for ninety-two minutes sounds like one big cinematic eye-poke. Factor in that it's written and directed by lowbrow raunch-meisters Peter and Bobby Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), and this new THE THREE STOOGES sounds like the movie equivalent of a poopy diaper, the only question being just how badly it will stink. But, like a continuous single smack-smack-smack across the faces of nay saying comedy snobs and critics everywhere, it turns out there's not too much rotten to smell here. Like perplexed uptight straight men in a Stooges scenario, such audience members are quickly bonked on the head by the shock of how much goes right in this ever-pointless reboot.
The producers of this film obviously looked high and low, and found three actors that function as veritable facsimiles of Larry, Moe and Curly (Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso). One can spend the entire film distracted by the precision of their re-creation, timing, appearance, and speech, replicated to a striking degree. The scenes of their extended antics, mostly played out impressively in long takes and wide shots, are the highlights of the film. Good thing too, since that's what it's all about.
Finding new Stooges has never been easy. It was the mid-1940s by the time Curly had shuffled from movie screens for good. The younger brother of Moe and Shemp, and the undisputed most popular Stooge, Curly Howard had fallen terribly ill. By that time "The Three Stooges" shorts had been going strong for a solid decade, and were among the most profitable and popular offerings that Columbia Pictures held. There was no question, Curly had to be replaced, and pronto. And so began the ill-fated revolving door of would-be Curlys; the fruitless search for the heir to the high-pitched "woowoowoowoo". Could any of the newbies bark up comedy gold the way the original did? Soitenly not. That said, some of the shorts starring Shemp are awfully funny... (Point of order: Shemp Howard actually predated Curly as a Stooge, but left before the act went supernova. As a family member and ground floor member, Shemp was fittingly the most noteworthy of Curly's replacements.)
That was a long time ago. Over time, the Stooges themselves went from short films, to ill-fated features, to the great pie in the sky. But more so than any other vintage comedy team, the popularity of their work never died. They may've lacked the intelligent finesse of the Marx Bothers or acclaimed ingenuity of Laurel and Hardy, but the Stooges brand of bloodless brutality-for-laughs, the characters' resistant determination in taking on job after job after different job (and bungling all of 'em) resonated fundamentally. As agents of fast-talking whack-a-minute hilarity, the Stooges were unlikely hybrids of innocence and cruelty, man-child vulnerability mixed with impervious cartoonishness. They embodied a certain depression-era subversion that was utterly necessary in popular culture back then: Family-driven work ethic and survival of all things - particularly one another.
What we get in the new version is a nun-filled Three Stooges origin story, complete with another set of impressive Stooge doppelgangers, preteens. Although the film is one long narrative, the three-act structure is broken up with iris-outs and vintage-style title opening title cards. We see the boys as orphans in a Catholic orphanage, wreaking violent havoc from day one. (The "origin" serves the film's plot far more than it actually explains why the boys are the way they are - which is for the best.) We see them as hapless grown-ups, acting as orphanage groundskeepers. (One of the film's most inspired bits involves them attempting a roof-based repair with a large bell.) Larry David plays Sister Mary-Mengele, the head nun. If you laughed at that, then you're probably game for what the Farrellys bring to this movie, which is clearly their take at a family-friendly cross-generational romp. There's a Mexican standoff with urinating babies, a poopy diaper fight (ah, there's those diapers we've been talking about!), and a little bit of Benny Hill-style big boobie humor (courtesy of Sofía Vergara) as the fellas go about botching their latest job: Contract killing.
Waitaminute, what?!? Yes, you read correctly - One of the only jobs we've never seen them do before, the Three Stooges are out to plug a guy for money. But don't worry; it's all a trick by the bad guys, and a misunderstanding on the part of our portly protagonists. Believe it or not, their hearts are in the right place the whole time. They gotta raise some dough to save the orphanage! In the meantime, Moe ends up a cast member on "Jersey Shore".
So not everything is quite right about this, but at least it's got it where it counts. The Farrelly's prove they have a fundamental understanding of what made the classic "The Three Stooges" work, honoring the original shorts in form and pacing while also not desecrating them too much with their own sensibilities. The film has a knack to get weirdly mean spirited, but like Curly's invincible noggin, it has a way of recovering.
Rebooting the Three Stooges is like trying to replace Freddie Mercury - try as you might, but there's no way it will be as good, worthwhile, or not awkward. The difference in the analogy is that most of Queen is still alive and very much looking to carry on (for better or for worse); the real Three Stooges have been dead for years. And yet, in true Stooges fashion, logic must be subverted in the name of slapstick. So here's where it gets good - since they more or less got away with it, the Stooge-centric gags portions being as solid as they are, it's subversion on top of subversion! To what degree am I talking about? Let's just say that if they gave an Academy Award to Meryl Streep for her indelible impersonation of Lady Thatcher, (and they did,) then they ought to start thinking about a three-headed statuette for these fine knuckleheads. The success of THE THREE STOOGES rises or falls on how well the new actors channel the originals. Done, done, and done; nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. Chew on that, wiseguy.
From a classic "Stooges" fan's perspective, the "why" of this film will always be there, but from an entertainment standpoint, the "Why, you...!" of this film is soitenly intact.
- Jim Tudor