Saturday, April 14, 2012

Nyuck to the Future: THE THREE STOOGES

Writer-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly, from their early efforts Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary to more recent works like Stuck on You and last year’s giggling sex farce Hall Pass, have a commitment to broad slapstick and gross-out gags. So it makes a certain amount of sense that their long-in-development passion project is The Three Stooges, a lowest-common-denominator exhumation of silly, second-rate mid-20th century vaudevillian nonsense. You’d think that seeing Larry, Moe and Curly impersonators stumble around modern-day settings doing their same old eye-poking, pun-spitting, kicking, stomping, and whoop-whoop-whooping routine would be at best misguided, at worst unbearable. That’s almost the case here and yet there’s something so gleefully goofy and ecstatically, old-fashioned juvenile about the film that it ends up being something closer to warmhearted fan fiction, a tribute to childhood idols of a dubious kind.

The plot, such as it is, rests on a Catholic orphanage where the three little stooges were dropped off and subsequently raised. The patient nuns are the very funny Jane Lynch, Oscar-winning American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson, who gets a short musical number, Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue cover girl Kate Upton, and Larry David. Yes, that Larry David. They’re exasperated with the guys’ antics, but somehow, twenty-five years later, the guys are still hanging around. The Farrellys don’t really care to explain exactly why the guys are such weird anachronisms right out of the womb, leading to a sometimes off-putting mix of contemporary references and moments when the Stooges are utterly dumbfounded by modernity. What’s going on here? They have no clue what an iPhone is, but they know who C-3PO is? You just have to throw up your hands and go with it.

What’s especially surprising, and makes it easier to just go along with the movie’s silliness, is how skillfully the main cast inhabits the roles of the Stooges. At first, they seem to be ever so slightly not quite right, but as the movie went on I grew accustomed to them. They’re doing admirable work in a tough spot. Sean Hayes plays Larry with a scrunched up face and drawn out delivery while Chris Diamantopoulos squints and schemes from beneath a flat, black mop of hair as Moe. Meanwhile, Will Sasso delivers a pitch-perfect Curly, wiggling his bulk around with squirmy grace and fluidity while manipulating his voice with a squeaky falsetto. In other words, they’re the Stooges. They smack each other around with exaggerated sound effects and bumble through life spreading (somewhat unintentional) destruction, much to the consternation of those around them.

When the events of the plot finally kick into motion, it’s revealed that the orphanage is over $800,000 dollars in debt. The trio decides to set off to raise the money and save the orphans. (That one cute little orphan is also sick with a mysterious disease may be a bit too nakedly manipulative and heavy for such an otherwise bouncy lark.) It’s a fairly dusty premise, which only adds to the sense that the movie has been sucked through a hole in the space-time continuum and arrived at just the right speed and location to smack me upside the head. I sat dumbfounded as often as I was amused. It’s all just so straight-ahead slapstick and brightly lit episodic tomfoolery. The Farrellys can’t indulge in their usual R-rated sight gags, but that’s no loss here, since that’s not their intent. Besides, there are plenty of icky moments, like a scene in a nursery with urinating infants, or a scene in which a lion is hit in the boing-loings by a peanut shot out of a dolphin’s blowhole. There’s definitely a creeping sense of the surreal here. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

As the movie goes this way and that, sorting itself into three loose episodes differentiated by titles in the style of the old Stooges’ shorts, the Farrellys find plenty more hoary old story elements to utilize. There’s a cartoonish femme fatale (Sophia Vergara) involved in a murder plot that ropes in the Stooges and runs throughout the remainder of the film, though, given how much punishment these characters take without consequence, it’s an oddly low-stakes murder plot. There’s also a smarmy lawyer (Stephen Collins) and his slightly dimwitted son (Kirby Heyborne), not to mention a goofy thug (Craig Bierko), bumbling cops, a stern nurse, and a party full of snooty rich people and other eccentric types including a thickly accented French baker.

It’s a movie in which most jokes, simply by the nature of the story and the caricatures, can be seen coming from a mile away. Sometimes, these jokes just aren’t very funny and yet when they land, they land hard. When they did, I found myself laughing despite myself. A fairly early sequence that builds with exceptional escalation starts with the Stooges trying to fix a church steeple and culminates in a church bell sliding down and smacking a nun in head. Moe wonders who their victim was. Curly squeaks, “I dunno, but her face rings a bell!”

There’s something sort of sweet about the way the Farrellys pay tribute to the Stooges, in its own way like what Jason Segel and company did with The Muppets. For me, a little Three Stooges goes a long way whether they be new or old, but the enthusiasm of this movie is borderline contagious. The Farrelly brothers lovingly recreate the kind of slapdash, repetitive, hit-and-miss silliness of the Three Stooges while trying to say that the world today could use some good, uncomplicated pratfalls and broad wordplay now and then. An extended goofy plot point in the middle of the movie finds Moe accidentally becoming the newest cast member of Jersey Shore. It’s an odd moment – one that feels miscalculated and stale already – but it also serves as the film’s statement of purpose of sorts. As Moe smacks around these tanned, shallow, callow reality show stars, I could almost hear the Farrellys arguing that the popular shallow of old beats the popular shallow of today any day.