Three cheers to the Farrelly Brothers for getting the most important aspect of their long awaited Three Stooges feature right. The fidelity to the Stooges’ comic style is really as true as it’s possible to realize using mere humans. And somehow the three stand-ins (Will Sasso as Curly, Sean Hayes as Larry, Chris Diamontopoulos as Moe) manage to blast past mere impressions into genuine, internally generated comic performances in a way that, say, Robert Downey, Jr’s as Chaplin did not. And after all, they all have good resumes for this: we’ve seen Sasso’s Curly impression on MAD TV for years; Hayes did a similar turn as Jerry Lewis in that tv movie a decade ago, and Diamantopolous is a voice-over actor on American Dad. The trio is talented beyond question. Yet the Farrelly Brothers did a wise thing in casting fairly anonymous guys so the experience is strictly about the characters in a way that it wouldn’t have been if we had seen (as was rumored) the likes of Sean Penn and Jim Carrey on the screen. And not only did the Farrellys write and direct the characters with intimate knowledge of how they speak and move, they clearly know the source material so well that they frequently strike out on their own, inventing new business for the team.
The most exciting part for me was the presence of several extended slapstick sequences…chains of gags (and worthy ones) that stretch on for minutes at a time. The thought that audiences might embrace this kind of thing is heartening to me, because it’s truly been dead for as long as 70 years. Isolated slapstick gags? Sure. Pure, extended slapstick? Dead. A recent example to illuminate the difference: in Tower Heist there is the very original situation of the main characters trying to lower a sports car from the roof of a skyscraper down to a lower floor. Mathew Broderick reaches out to grab it, then gets pulled out of the building so he is dangling dozens of stories over the street below. There are a couple of limp gags, then the story moves on. Any real comedy director (not just the obvious one, Harold Lloyd) would have milked that promising situation for creative variations until the audience was both awestruck and sore with laughter. It makes all the difference between unforgettable and…forgettable. I’m not sure I would be so rash as to label The Three Stooges as “unforgettable”, but for once I’m seeing stuff in a new comedy that’s at least impressive. I have never seen a chain saw used in a Three Stooges routine. I have never seen a church bell tumble off a roof and hit a nun in the head. I have seen a lobster pinch a man’s ear, but not lately, and I have certainly (coitainly) never seen it then dropped down another man’s pants where it…ya know. Furthermore, they’ve built chains of gags that act on the plot, which is the mother lode in terms of slapstick movie making. In one sequence, the boys are in a jam in the back of a moving car at gun point. Curly’s pet rat hops out of his pocket, causing the driver to go off the road and into a lake. After the car is submerged and there seems no way out, Curly farts (I know), Larry lights a waterproof match, the car explodes, and all the passengers are blasted back to the surface like fish by the concussion. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it also ain’t far from Stan Laurel.
If the fart has you worried, let me reassure you. I am not a fan of the Farrelly Brothers’ usual penchant for gross-out. To me it’s closer to horror than humor and it generally takes me several minutes (sometimes several days) to recover from the trauma of some of their more egregious misuses of simulated vomit, feces, semen and so forth. Thankfully, this film has only one such scene, and as the Farrellys go, it’s a fairly innocent one. (The boys have a sort of water pistol fight by holding up urinating infants. Trust me, it’s a brilliantly staged urinating infant water fight scene).
Unfortunately The Three Stooges does get hung up on the Farrelly’s other customary sin, and it’s almost a deal breaker. I’m talking about the unearned, inexplicable sentiment they shoe-horn into all their movies. Take into consideration that there is no harder type of story to try to tell than a feature length comedy. It’s very hard to keep an audience laughing for 90 minutes AND make an engaging plot. Usually this problem is solved by making the comedy “light” and “romantic”. The main character is funny but not too funny. A little strange looking but not too strange looking. And their goals and desires and motivations are not too terribly alien from our own. The more clownish and grotesque the comic character is, the harder that is to do. Unfortunately, the Farrelly Brothers have the very same problem that Jerry Lewis has, and they try to solve it in the very same (ineffective) way that he does. The script is about 85% of a grotesque character running around engaging in grotesque, inhuman behavior. And then at key points, completely without motivation or organic plausibility, they insert “emotional” scenes, where it is indicated that we should feel something about the characters. But we most assuredly don’t. The ritual tells us we should. The things the characters are saying, if they had been said in the right context, by characters we had been caring about for the other 85% of the movie, are the right things to say. But it is an empty charade, and frankly shows a kind of insulting contempt for the audience and for the art of drama. Do they think we’re that easy? (Even the the Three Stooges themselves did a better job at solving the feature length comedy problem, in their films from the 1960s. They did it by softening their characters and almost completely sacrificing what actually made them funny. The movies are boring but at least they don’t openly show scorn for the audience). So this film has a plot about the boys trying to save the orphanage where they grew up (I don’t want a backstory for the Three Stooges, it’s too literal), and there are all these cloyingly phony scenes with orphans (there’s even a sick one) and nuns that we have to sit through. Whether the Farrellys know it or not, this kind of crap is grosser than the literal crap they usually have their characters accidentally eat in sandwiches. I’m far more moved by stuff like seeing Moe drop a lit dynamite stick into an invalid’s full body cast, which at least has the virtue of honesty.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released in September, 2012.