REVIEW: The Farrelly Brothers' Three Stooges Mixes the Cerebral and the Silly, with Lots of Eye-Poking
Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s The Three Stooges is not particularly great, though it is possibly brilliant, a picture that goes beyond homage to become its own rambunctious invention — it’s one big eye-poke, with footnotes. Maybe the world doesn’t need a meticulously observed re-creation of the Three Stooges’ artistry, a brand of cartoonishly violent slapstick that for decades horrified moms and other upstanding individuals. Or maybe the world needs it now more than ever. Either way, the Farrellys’ reimagining of the Stooges ouvre — which includes a backstory set in an orphanage run by nuns — is packed with so much affection, and pays so much attention to detail, that I think it’s possible to love The Three Stooges even if you never loved the Three Stooges. The picture is confident in its ridiculousness — any movie that puts Larry David in a nun’s habit has to be.
The original Three Stooges — or, rather, the Three Stooges that those of us who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew from television — originated as a vaudeville act in the mid-1920s, put together as, well, stooges by comedian Ted Healy. Healy was successful in his own right at the time, but the fame of the Stooges – who, in their most popular incarnation, comprised Moe Howard, Jerome “Curly” Howard and Larry Fine — rapidly eclipsed his. The short subjects Moe, Curly and Larry made in the ’30s and ’40s — pictures with painfully punny titles like “A Plumbing We Will Go,” “Nutty But Nice” and “They Stooge to Conga” — had a thriving afterlife on television. The cacophonous anti-ballet of the Stooges — which included, but was not limited to, butts’ being kicked and skulls’ being walloped with mallets — shaped the minds of many budding filmmakers, writers and just plain layabouts.
The backstory the Farrellys lay out for the Stooges here is far more colorful: As infants, they’re dropped off in a bag on an orphanage doorstep – when the nuns who run the joint unzip that bag, three naked infants with Larry, Curly and Moe hairdos peer up at them like deceptively innocent Easter chicks from Hell. Fast-forward a few years and these cherubs have become 10-year-old hellions, kids whom nobody will adopt. Fast-forward a few more years, and Moe, Larry and Curly are now grown-ups — played, respectively, by Chris Diamontoupolos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso — who’ve stuck around the orphanage because there’s nowhere else to go. Supposedly, they earn their keep by doing odd jobs, but in reality, they’ve merely set up a tape recorder stocked with industrious woodworking sounds — meanwhile, the three of them lie conked-out nearby, piled on a bed, their snores orchestrated into a percussive snoozapalooza.
Peter and Bobby Farrelly — who, with Mike Cerrone, also wrote the script — lift that particular bit wholesale from one of the old Stooges’ shorts. In fact, all of the movie’s physical gags are meticulous re-creations of standard Stoogery: Heads being conked with hammers, complete with clanging metallic sound effects; standard-issue eye-pokes; limbs being twisted and intertwined in ways that defy human anatomy. All the old chestnuts are here, rendered with such loving specificity that they merge into a kind of highly perfumed Zen garden — call it Essence du Stooge. This is physical comedy in its purest form — it’s crude as hell, but there’s precision in its crudeness, and that’s not lost on the Farrellys or their actors. All three of the leads capture the Stooge gestalt, clearly having studied every gesture, grimace and eye-roll: Diamontopoulos’s Moe, with his old-time Brooklyn honk of an accent, is suitably ornery (the Farrellys give him a backstory that, with Freudian efficiency, explains his perpetual bad temper) and Hayes’s Larry makes a sweet-tempered naïf (he reads a “Do Not Remove” sign as “Do-Nut Remover”). Of the three, though, Sasso’s Curly is spiritually closest to his forbear: His too-short pants and buttoned-tight jacket are pure Curly, and his corkscrew smile and high-pitched giggle are so perfect they go beyond mimicry. Curly was generally the most beloved of the Three Stooges, even among Stooge-hating women, and Sasso channels the idea of what made him funny and appealing, rather than just trying to imitate the thing itself. The performance is almost a nonverbal essay, a way of calling attention to the delicate skills needed to pull off such an excessively coarse result.
The Farrellys have structured their movie as three shorts that connect into a narrative, involving the Stooges’ efforts to save the beleaguered orphanage that gave them their start — their hearts are in the right place, even when their noses have been dislocated. Sofia Vergara appears as a scheming bad gal; Stephen Collins plays an adoptive dad who isn’t quite what he seems. And then there are the nuns, two of whom are played by Jane Lynch and Jennifer Hudson. Hudson glows to the point of looking beatific — she’s a wowser of a sister. And Lynch looks almost too good in a wimple — if she weren’t such a terrific comic actress, you’d think she missed her calling. But it’s Larry David’s Sister Mary-Mengele who steals the show, nunwise. She berates the boys in a shrewish rasp. When the orphans join together in angelic song — the words assert that everybody is special — Sister Mary cuts them off with a foghorn “Shaddap!” She’s every former Catholic schoolkid’s nightmare in one cranky, knobby package.
She’s also the kind of character at which the Farrellys excel, which suggests that even if they haven’t fully returned to form, at least they’ve returned to some form. The duo’s recent pictures have been dismal — their 2007 remake of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, in particular, showed an uncharacteristic mean-spiritedness. But at their best, the Farrellys' stock-in-trade is balancing the coarsest, dumbest humor imaginable with a bracing affection for the weirdos and misfits of humankind. And what were the original Three Stooges, if not the ultimate weirdos and misfits, bullying and bumbling their way through the world? With The Three Stooges, the Farrellys have poured a great deal of heart into a subject many people feel they can do without: For every past-middle-aged guy in a rumpled T-shirt who professes love for the Three Stooges, there are at least three women, most likely members of book groups, who see them as the downfall of civilization.
But for the Farrellys, the three Stooges are simply a product of civilization, a source of the disreputable joy and pleasure that sometimes, particularly on a really bad day, make life worth living. That’s not to say their movie is exactly a model of subtlety. Yet it’s telling that the Farrellys stage one of the movie’s more emotional moments to a spare, unvarnished recording of Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home,” a country-gospel number of transcendent power and beauty. What’s a great song like that doing in a movie like this? That’s the eternal riddle of the Farrellys, at least when they’re at their best. Even when they’re catering to our baser impulses, they find a way to appeal to our higher instincts. Sometimes even without using a mallet.