'Three Stooges': Poke in the Eye of the Beholder
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
To call "The Three Stooges," the contemporary reboot of the "classic" comedy trio, a hit-and-miss affair is both to indulge in the kind of wordplay that should earn one a poke in the eye, and to be a little too generous. The no-longer-quite-kingpins of crude cinematic humor (with sometimes quasi-subversive smarts), Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have been trying to bring this pet project of reincarnating the nasty post-vaudevillians Moe, Larry and Curly to the screen for, it seems, almost as long as they've been making movies. At various stages of development such stellar and, in some cases, seemingly brilliantly counterintuitive talents as Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, Benicio del Toro and Sean Penn had been floated to not portray but newly embody the schticksters. The biggest name of the trio that's actually making it into multiplexes is Sean Hayes, late of "Will and Grace." He plays Larry, and he's in a way the most convincing Stooge here. While both Chris Diamantopoulos as bowl-cut sadist Moe and Will Sasso as gonzo moron-in-a-china-shop Curly are both physically dexterous, comically deft and exceptionally game, neither of them conveys the cramped, seedy nastiness that was a vital part of the originals' ... well, can we call it charm?
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And this, I should say, is where the rub might be located: You're either a Stooges person or you're not, and if you're not, you have no reason to care about this picture. I myself have at least somewhat fond memories of my days as a Stooges person, which period fell in my late teens and early 20s. I was already a fan of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Woody Allen and such. Cultivating Stooges fandom from that foundation was a way of embracing one's own inner anarchic stupid person, and also the Stooges stuff played pretty well after ingesting certain inebriants that were common collegiate fodder in the late '70s. I don't revisit Stooges stuff much these days, but I'd never be so snooty as to brag that I grew out of them. So that's where I'm coming from with this picture.
Obviously, the Farrellys are still Stooges people, else they wouldn't have bothered to make this movie. The affection they have for the still-not-reputable team is evident in the way they recreate their most famous bits of physical and verbal humor. They extend the cheeky tastelessness in some genuinely irresponsible ways: One of the nuns at the orphanage where Moe, Larry, and Curly are deposited as weirdly tonsured babies is actually named Sister Mary Mengele. (Larry David plays the nun in a broad drag performance that constitutes a fan's testament of its own.)
They break up the 90 minutes of this feature so that each third of the film constitutes its own quasi-short, for short subjects were where the Stooges did their best, or, for those of you still reading who are not Stooges people, most historically notable work. They smartly bring in the very capable Sofia Vergara and Jane Lynch, among others, to play Stooge female foils. They also blatantly lift from the plots of both "The Blues Brothers" and "Beavis and Butthead Do America" (the story has the Stooges trying to raise money to save their beloved orphanage, and running afoul of a contract-killing scheme in the dumb process), neither of which is an entirely inapposite comic model, so that's OK.
For all that, absent the weird post-modern kicks that might have ensued had better-known performers populated the top spots, this movie lives and dies with its jokes. I laughed embarrassingly out loud at some of the baby-Stooge stuff in the beginning. I clammed up a bit at the boy Stooges. I gritted my teeth at a drawn-out hospital routine involving multiple micturating infants. I laughed embarrassingly out loud again at a gag in which a pair of clothes irons are mistaken for defibrillator electrodes and placed on a hapless individuals chest. The bit ending with Curly exclaiming "No, but her face rings a bell" had me in stitches. The plot twist in which Moe lands a role in an actually extant television reality show and interacts with its actual cast should be funny. But one is distracted by the fact of seeing those schmucks from (SPOILER ALERT) "Jersey Shore" making still more money. And the young reprobates are such lame performers that you just sit there wondering how long they needed to produce a usable take rather than laughing at/with them.
The more successful stuff is hard to quantify because, as was often the case in the shorts, the best gags are the ones that fly by quickest. But by the time the picture ended, my feeling was that while a good part of the picture reached my submerged Stooges person and made him laugh, too much of it just didn't connect at all. Maybe not being under the influence of collegiate inebriants dulled the comic effect, but I'm not going to put that theory to any kind of test. Your mileage may vary as they say, but being a Stooges person would seem to be a prerequisite for your bothering to go see it in the first place.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.