They're watching Snow White...and they love it.
--Zach Galligan, Gremlins
Unlike most Sunday morning screenings, I couldn't just walk into The Three Stooges and plop down wherever I wanted. It took about thirty seconds of scanning a packed auditorium to find a decent spot, and I immediately suspected I'd been wrangled into some kind of sociology experiment.
It was a diverse enough crowd to offer demented scientists a healthy cross-section of moviegoers: from kids and their parents, to elderly fans of the original comedy shorts, to a group of mentally challenged adults on a field trip, and every combination of race and gender. No doubt, the magnetic strip on my AMC Stubs card had registered me as a control subject for the snark contingent. For weeks, I'd dreaded this film and the sub-human morons whose genuine amusement at the horrible trailers would compel them out of their caves and into the theatre with me.
Well, look who's a sub-human moron now. From the retro title card announcing what would be the first of three mini-Stooges adventures, I was hooked. Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly and co-writer Mike Cerrone have taken the gross remake/update formula audiences have complained about for a decade and turned it upside down. Unlike the recent Smurfs and Chipmunks movies, which impose modern pop-culture sensibilities on classic children's characters, The Three Stooges keeps the star trio pure: you won't hear Moe say "True dat", and Curly's preferred snack is a whole fish, which he devours from the middle--leaving a 1930s-style carp-toon skeleton.
The movie's three episodes comprise a single, basic plot: after having been anonymously ditched at an orphanage as babies, three violent, socially awkward, yet big-hearted buffoons grow up and set out on a quest to save their home from foreclosure. Grumpy, furrowed-brow brute, Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), leads the curly-haired wise guy, Larry (Sean Hayes), and rotund, metal-skulled giant, Curly (Will Sasso) on an adventure to the Big City, where they are embroiled in a murder plot, become reality-TV stars, and wreak much havoc on high-society stiffs. Along the way, there's much eye-poking, slapping, and countless gags involving random objects as non-lethal torpedoes, accompanied by sound effects that alternately soften (what should be) bone-breaking blows and enhance them.
I didn't grow up a Stooges fan, but I also hated Tom and Jerry, and found Looney Tunes intolerable. I was more of a transforming-robots and Grayskull kid. That lack of interest, combined with Nicole "Snooki" Pollizi's appearance in the trailer made me think I'd be miserable watching this movie. On the contrary, I laughed and smiled consistently at the brilliant performances of the three leads, and the supporting cast's solid work.
Jane Lynch isn't given much to do, comedically, as the orphanage's head nun. But that's an issue of expectation rather than execution: she plays way against type here, and leaves the Mean Old Lady act to Larry David, as Sister Mary-Mengele. Yep, that Larry David.
Sofia Vergara plays the conniving, rich housewife who wants the Stooges to knock off her husband. Again, I was surprised that the Farrellys didn't set up the star of one of America's biggest sitcoms with more laughs. But I admire their commitment to letting the headliners be the whole show. The Stooges work best against squares, and the film's other funny roles reach only minor levels of broad amusement that can't even touch their nutso-stratosphere antics.
The exception, of course, is the appearance of the Jersey Shore cast. Their buffoonery is enhanced not by virtue of being showcased in a Three Stooges movie, but by contrasting characters pretending to be low-IQ hams with those who wake up in that greasy, orange-tinted reality every morning. And, contrary to what you might think from watching the trailers, this isn't a case of zeitgeist stunt-casting: the Shore crew are an integral part of the film's plot.
The biggest complaint I've heard leveled at this movie--mostly by people who wouldn't dare stoop so low as to actually see it--is that it's not the original Stooges; that Hollywood has run out of ideas (itself a cliche that's mostly used by people not inventive enough to come up with a new phrasing). To this, I say two things:
1. Hollywood moguls are ridiculously wealthy and powerful. But none of them, as far as I know, are necromancers. So until Steven Spielberg teams up with the Farrellys to actually put Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine back in front of the camera, I suggest this legion of whiny tight-wads just relax and accept the fact that, sometimes, preserving a legacy means making the source material relevant.
2. The Farrellys' Stooges movie is jam-packed with ideas, some of them really big and meta. There's the PG, family-friendly aspect, which should go a long way in explaining to film snobs why there's so much falling down and goofy sound effects in the run-time. But there's also a weird alternate-reality vibe at play, as well as a couple of moments that usher our heroes to the brink of self-actualization.
Take the Stooges' big, blow-out fight, which ends in their splitting up (that's only a spoiler if you're in the film's rating-target audience). Moe the bully dismisses his lifelong friends as useless, and stands scouring into the blackness of a small theatre. In a matter of seconds, his face dissolves into that of the actor playing him; Diamontopoulos lets his brilliant mask slip just for a second so that the universe can acknowledge that one of its fundamental elements has just been dissolved. It's like water becoming fire for a heartbeat. In the next moment, he's Moe again, playing the fool in front of an acting class who think the whole argument was a breathtaking Method performance.
Personally, I think the film's greatest achievement is that it made me want to watch The Three Stooges again, to see what it was that the Farrellys mined for this material. It's probably asking too much that 20th Century Fox hire Diamontopoulos, Sasso, and Hayes to film new shorts to play in front of upcoming releases, but it's officially near the top of my Cool Things That Should Be Real list. These men so effectively channel the original performers that I wouldn't be surprised to learn (in a Human Centipede 2-style meta-follow-up) that the spirits of the Howards and Fine were reincarnated in this movie's universe--one in which The Three Stooges did not previously exist.
I can't recommend this movie enough. Watching it may help die-hard Stooges fans quit their grousing, as well as spawn an entire generation of admirers among those who think black-and-white movies were just poorly-projected color films. As the credits rolled on the screening I attended, the audience broke out into a volume of applause I hadn't heard since The Hunger Games. This time, I joined in.
Note: Much has been made about the public service announcement that closes the movie. The premise is pretty funny, but the humor drains away at the realization that the filmmakers are making a serious statement about kids not murdering each other with hammers. I guess it's better to be safe than sorry, but this bummer of a tag destroys the previous scene's heartwarming, silly ending.