Review: ‘The Three Stooges’ is a sweet and silly tribute to the original trio

I’m not supposed to say anything nice about this film.

That’s the message that has been sent loud and clear ever since the first trailer for the movie arrived online.  Based on the fervent hatred that has been poured onto the film, it seems that all online film writers are old-school Three Stooges aficionados, and the Stooges have evidently moved into that part of pop culture that is so revered, so sacred, that absolutely nothing new can be done with them at the risk of sacrilege.

I would certainly count myself among the Stooge faithful.  My college roommate and I had a Stooges poster hanging in our dorm room.  I’ve memorized many of their sorts through sheer osmosis over the years.  Whenever I’m lost in some out-of-the-way place, I refer to it as “Goslow” instead of “BFE” or any of the other popular alternatives as a nod to a terrible, terrible joke from one of their films.  I spent countless afternoons growing up watching their films on TV, and when SPHE started putting out collections of their short films, I eagerly purchased every single one.

And yet I don’t share that knee-jerk outrage that anyone would DARE to do something new with the Stooges.  It does not offend me in the hypothetical.  And when I walked in for the screening, I was not determined to prove that the Farrelly Brothers were driven by hubris in their desire to make a movie starring the Stooges.  I was just curious to see if the film itself would make sense of what seems a very strange decision overall.

The Three Stooges were real people, yes.  But the real Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine did not just arrive fully formed as the Three Stooges we know now, and the act itself went through such a tumultuous history that I find it downright bizarre acting as if there is only one acceptable version of The Three Stooges.  I think the characters that they created, built around vaudeville routines that were tried and true by the time they started doing them, have become larger than life icons at this point.  When Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso appear onscreen in the new film by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, they’re not playing the real people.  They’re playing those icons, and in doing so, I’d argue they honor the spirit of the show business tradition that birthed the Stooges in the first place.

Vaudeville was built around this notion of shared and borrowed culture, where you’d see people absorb bits and pieces of acts they’d seen and liked, and where shows changed night to night based on what worked with audiences and what didn’t.  A vaudeville act was a living thing, and every night, it would grow and change, and things that worked would get refined and polished.  When the Stooges started making their films, many of the routines they used and much of the patter that they are famous for was part of a tradition.  It didn’t just spring up in a vacuum for them.  They weren’t the originators of every comic idea they filmed.  Not even close.

The Farrelly Brothers and their co-writer Mike Cerrone decided to build the feature as a series of three short films.  They are loosely connected by a storyline in which the Stooges try to raise $830,000 to save the orphanage where they were raised, but each of the shorts is built around its own premise.  The film is brisk, basically an excuse for a sustained crescendo of gags, and it is obvious they have studied the work of the Stooges closely.  Right now, film comedy seems to be taking its cues from the Judd Apatow school of thinking, but the Farrellys have a very different comic sensibility.  They are gag men.  They think in terms of a scene being a springboard for however many gags they can build in that place or between those people.  They will throw reality under the bus if it means they get a laugh, and that seems like a perfect fit for the Stooges, where we can’t possibly be meant to believe that real people could ever act like this without grievous bodily harm.

As with real Stooges shorts, there is a barrage of material here, and they land as many jokes as they whiff.  When they throw this much at the audience, I think the expectation is that not everything’s going to work, but that you’ll laugh at enough of it that it doesn’t matter.  That’s certainly the case here, and what I found most surprising is just how quickly the film establishes that this Moe (Diamantopoulos), Larry (Hayes) and Curly (Sasso) is the “real” trio in the sense that the dynamics play out just right and, more than that, they’ve got the rhythms down.  The Stooges verbal wordplay is just as important as the slapping and the punching, and there is a sort of music to the way different comedy icons work.  Abbott and Costello don’t sound anything like the Marx Brothers, who plays scenes totally different than the Stooges.  They may mine similar ideas, but what made a team special in that era was the way they did it, the voice they brought to things.

Diamantopoulos gives good alpha as Moe.  He’s the ringleader, the man with the plan, and he has to be the center of the storm if the Stooges are going to work.  Sasso gets the binary nature of Curly just right, either sunshiny and childlike or barking like a dog and just plain crazy.   And Sean Hayes… I can’t praise Sean Hayes enough.  I am a Larry Fine fan, and part of what I appreciate about the work of Larry Fine is that he often seemed like he was starring in a very different movie in his head than the one he was actually starring in.  He would be playing his scenes to an audience only he could see.  He made some of the great weird choices I’ve ever seen from an actor, and often if you pause a scene and look at him, he’s off doing his own thing while everyone else is paying attention.  He’s a weirdo, and I love him for it.  And Hayes gets it right.  Vocally, he nails it, and I can tell that Billy West came in to help him with it.  But more than that, Hayes transforms himself while playing the part so that I can’t see Hayes at all.  All three of the guys have obviously studied body language and mannerisms and facial tics, and it pays off.  They all deserve praise for how well they pulled it off.

Three Stooges shorts often worked best when they had a good foil, and the film certainly does its best to find them foils.  Larry David plays Sister Mary Mengele, a scary nun who is the focus of much of the energy of the boys as they grow up in their orphanage, and David understands exactly what he’s playing, making sure his character is just rotten.  I don’t think Sofia Vergara or Craig Bierko really work as the main villains of the film, though, and I feel like they just didn’t get the right tone down.  They’re big and broad and silly, but that’s not necessarily right for the Stooges.  There’s a certain sort of timelessness that the film gets right in other places, and it makes Vergara and Bierko’s work stands out.

Ultimately, I think this film fits into the overall arc of the Farrelly Bros work in a way that makes it a personal film for them.  They’ve always had a distinct fondness for the outsider, the weirdo, the people with physical or emotional quirks that make it hard for them to fit into “normal” society.  Their breakthrough hit “Dumb and Dumber” feels like a Three Stooges film minus one Stooge, and in this film, they make sure that the guys are played as a force of something very pure and good.  There’s not a mean bone in their bodies, and even when they’re beating holy hell out of each other, that’s just the way they communicate.  They sort of sum up all the characters the Farrellys have created, and in a way, this throwback is maybe the purest way for the Farrellys to reconnect with what it was that made them get into comedy in the first place.

The film has a scattershot approach to laughs, and so I’m sure no one will laugh at every joke or every beat.  I think it’s an admirable effort, and the one thing that is very clear is that the guys playing the Stooges, much like the guys behind the camera, have a genuine love of the real Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard, and what they’ve done here is in no danger of replacing or destroying their work.  Instead, it almost canonizes a form of humor that no one else is making these days, in a way that is very direct and even charming.  There’s a special scene at the end of the film with two bodybuilders playing the Farrelly Brothers, telling kids how the slapstick was done and warning them not to actually hit anyone with a hammer or poke anyone in the eye.  It’s handled as a joke, but I’m guessing there was a real conversation with the legal department that required them to include something like that.  I think it’s probably a losing battle, though, because based on the reactions of my own kids, this new Stooges may launch a new generation of fans.  They’ve been watching the old shorts non-stop since they saw the movie, and  for them, Moe, Larry, and Curly are alive and well.

“The Three Stooges” opens in theaters tomorrow.