The Three Stooges were and remain a cultural institution, despite every generation having the same debate about whether all the eye-poking, head-sawing, and physical abuse produce laughs at some social or psychological expense.
I wasn’t surprised that the Farrelly brothers decided to make a film version of “The Three Stooges.” As Baby Boomers, the brothers got a daily dose of Moe, Larry and Curly on TV, though the best of the shorts were filmed in the ‘30s and early ‘40s—before the Farrellys were even born.
It did surprise me, though, that Peter and Bobby decided to play it straight. Rather than distancing themselves from the subject matter and offering a take that’s either a parody or wink-wink look back—the way that director Betty Thomas both celebrated and poked fun of “The Brady Bunch” in her 1995 film version—the brothers essentially crafted a 92-minute reboot.
Chris Diamantopoulos is the most thoroughly convincing as Moe Howard, but Sean Hayes does a pretty nifty job of channeling Larry Fine, with Will Sasso managing enough vintage Curly Howard moments. Their Stooges mimic the original three so well and the antics are so familiar (“Hello, Hello, Hello!”) that at some point you find yourself wondering why the film was made. I mean, as much as Diamantopoulos makes you believe you’re watching Moe Howard, it still feels like the equivalent of a very good tribute band. Stunning as they may be, they’re not the original.
Yet, it’s the minor characters that seem just a little off. Jane Lynch as Mother Superior and Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele somehow aren’t as funny as the “normal” folks the original Stooges flustered, and I’m convinced it’s because the Farrelly brothers missed one key component of the original Stooges film shorts: the implied class distinction that put Moe, Larry, and Curly on the fringe of society. They were Depression-era down-and-outs who appealed to common people because, like the Marx Brothers, their antics always shook up the lives of the privileged class, and the jokes often came at the expense of rich folks, society matrons, opera singers, and authority figures like bosses and cops. The Stooges were erstwhile impersonators who were naive enough to think that they could do the job anyway. How can you not be impressed by that kind of optimism, however deluded it may be? And their “victims” weren’t just red-faced mad. The Stooges’ foils displayed mixture of emotions and feelings: incredulity, stupefaction, indignation, anger, self-righteousness, and elitism.
In “The Three Stooges: The Movie,” there are a few instances of class distinction, but the film doesn’t turn on it the way the film shorts did. “You know the Ritz Carlton?” one of the boys says. “We’re camped out in a dumpster right behind it.” Alas, there aren’t nearly enough moments like that, and the Farrelly brothers’ Stooges prompt responses in their “victims” that are far more simplified. But the biggest shortcoming of “The Three Stooges: The Movie” is that it shuns the typical Stooges storylines in favor of a shopworn and tired plot about the need to raise money to save the orphanage the boys came from.
Where’s a good Niagara Falls routine when you need it?
In fairness, to say that “The Three Stooges: The Movie” provides uneven comedy is to say that it’s pretty close to the original shorts. The Stooges’ shorts were often hit or miss. Some of them were just tedious silly symphonies of three-way violence, with plot taking a back seat. But the funniest ones also had plenty of funny lines to complement the sight gags situational comedy (and the sight gags here are nothing to giggle about—like farm-raised salmon just flopping on the surface of a field, or a pee fight in a hospital nursery).
But there are a few laugh-out-loud lines in the Farrelly brothers’ movie. When a prospective adoptive parent comes to the orphanage and sees little Larry’s wild hair and half-receded hairline, he asks the nun, “How long’s he got? He’s taking chemo, right?” Funny stuff. Same as when the adult Moe tries to get the three of them access to a building past a tough-looking woman. “I’ll sweet-talk our way in,” he tells the guys, then leans in and says to the woman, “Hey Bulldog . . . .” Again, funny stuff. There’s a moment, too, when you’re reminded of the old Stooges’ shorts as one of the boys tries to revive someone with irons, not cardiac paddles, and when the guy screams and starts to give chase, they scream “It’s a zombie, run for your lives!” But as you can tell from my tone, if I put together a highlight reel of the funniest lines, it wouldn’t even be long enough for a trailer. And by the time the “Jersey Shore” gang gets involved, well, it seems more like an afterthought. There should have been more development of this plot line and far less of the Stooges as children.
The good news is, “The Three Stooges” looks and sounds great in HD. Colors burst off the screen, and the level of detail is superb. I noticed no problems as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. “The Three Stooges: The Movie” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The bass isn’t terribly active and there’s not as much ambient sound as the old shorts had, but what’s here is clear and well mixed.
There are a few bonus features, but nothing to applaud. “A History of The Three Stooges” would have been better if the 11-minute feature actually stuck to history, rather than having to listen to the Farrelly brothers talk about why they needed to make the film. Then there’s a nine-minute feature on casting the three stars, a five-minute behind-the-scenes piece with the Farrelly brothers talking about filming, a four-minute piece on the sound effects, a four-minute screen test, and a three-minute mash-up of the eye-poking, head-sawing, and other gruesome slapstick moments. Capping the extras is the original trailer and nine minutes of deleted scenes.
Ultimately, “The Three Stooges: The Movie” isn’t funny enough for a comedy, which is too bad, because the three stars really worked hard to nail their characters. And Sofia Vergara, as the “villain” Lydia, seems like another wasted opportunity. Instead of the raw, crazy energy she generates on “Modern Family,” she’s poured into a role that’s as shallow as can be—the kind of tepid villainess that you see on the Disney Channel. That’s the route the Farrelly brothers went, and it’s disappointing.