The State of the Stooges, 2012

Guest Blogger: David J. Hogan, author of Three Stooges FAQ (Applause Books)

Producer-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly formally began their quest to make a Three Stooges feature film more than 15 years ago. The idea had commercial merit, but as often happens in Hollywood, years passed as the project was considered by numerous studios and went through many script drafts. Rumors swirled that such luminaries as Sean Penn and Jim Carrey were attached to the project, but windows of opportunity closed and those actors removed themselves from consideration. For a long while the odds were that the film would never be made at all.

Things finally came together when 20th Century-Fox involved itself and greenlighted the project. In a smart stroke, the Farrellys (best known for There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, and Dumb and Dumber) selected relative unknowns to play the boys in the all-new Stooges comedy: Sean Hayes as Larry, Will Sasso as Curly, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe.

The actors don’t do interpretations of the Stooges—they become the Stooges. This is beyond homage, this is duplication, and your willingness to accept it will play a large part in your reaction to the movie.

There certainly was no crying need for new actors to become the Stooges, but they did, and they deliver energetic, astonishingly faithful performances. Hayes has mastered Larry’s Philly accent, Sasso nails Curly’s piping voice and physical antics, and Diamantopoulos channels not just Moe’s bark but the great comic’s pugnacious body language. The violently slapstick gags draw directly from the originals, and audio of those fabulous Columbia Pictures eye pokes and other sound effects are retained.

I saw the film with a mix of longtime Stooges fans, teenagers, and younger kids. My observation was that the younger the viewer, the more enthusiastic the response. (On the way out, a boy of about 12 happily declared, “That was the funniest movie I ever saw!”)

For my part, I laughed heartily at plenty of the gags, and the quick pace with which they’re delivered. A visual joke involving a pogo stick put me on the floor, and a sequence at the boys’ salmon farm is outlandishly funny. For much of the rest of the picture, I chuckled. Sometimes I merely smiled.

The Three Stooges is undone by a few hugely noticeable creative miscalculations. First, too much time is devoted to the Stooges as little boys, as they grow up in an orphanage. The three young actors go through their paces effectively enough, but I wasn’t interested in seeing the boys as real boys.

Another narrative speed bump is the serious financial plight of the orphanage after the Stooges are all grown up. The place is $830,000 in debt (mainly, it turns out, because of damage caused by the Stooges over the course of 35 years). Precious minutes are squandered on adorably cute, waif-like orphans who long to be adopted by nice families. It’s pretty sticky stuff, and at odds with the original Stooges, who seldom trafficked in sentimentality. (For that matter, they seldom worked with kids.) When they did go all gooey, as in Three Loan Wolves (1946) and the particularly dire Nutty But Nice (1940), the results were some of the weakest two-reelers the team ever made. So the Farrellys’ decision to go maudlin—there’s even a little girl who’s dying—openly defies one of the boys’ strengths.

Although the slapstick bits are ferociously fast and beautifully executed, the interludes between feel slack, as if the picture has too much plot and can’t support its slim 92-minute running time. The Farrellys’ idea to divide the film into three, clearly identified episodes is a good one, but even with that innovation the pace flags when the boys aren’t on the attack. The overall rhythm picks up during the film’s final third, but the energy just arrives a little late.

Finally, the film can’t avoid the evolution of film grammar. The Farrellys shoot their picture in the modern mode, with a highly mobile camera, frequent tight closeups, brisk cutting, heavy camera coverage from many angles, subjective-camera images, and complex (and expensive) physical effects, such as the incredible arc and distance achieved by a poor sap who’s hit by a bus.

These and other devices are part of every modern filmmaker’s storytelling repertoire, but when the original Stooges shot their two-reelers during 1934-57, film grammar was different, and budgets were low. In the vintage shorts, most camera setups are static three- and two-shots, with occasional cuts to medium closeups. The shorts’ directors hadn’t the time, money, or inclination to attempt a lot of camera movement or design sequences for slick edits. Instead of having the gloss of the Farrellys’ movie, most of the shorts display a pleasingly gritty, off-the-rack look. And they were in black and white, which firmly locks them—and the Stooges—into a particular era.

Naturally, no accountant (or whatever it is that passes for a studio executive these days) was going to allow the new Three Stooges to be shot in black and white (and that’s a shame), and the old film grammar is gone forever. We can still enjoy that style of filmmaking, but it won’t be duplicated on a studio film today. So although the new Stooges look and sound very much like the originals, the tech and stylistic aspects of the filmic world they inhabit have no relation to the world of the shorts. Up there on the big screen in 2012, the boys seem overwhelmed.

Lastly, I wish I hadn’t seen the trailers because a lot of the best gags are revealed in them. Males in the audience will be particularly disappointed to discover that the funniest and most audacious moment from the first trailer, curvy model Kate Upton’s Venus-like climb from a swimming pool, didn’t make the final cut. Instead, we get only a quick glimpse—in long shot, no less—of Upton seated in a lifeguard’s chair waay on the other side of the pool.

Fox apparently coveted the PG rating, but PG-13 would probably have worked out better.

Ask me later if I’ll buy the DVD. I’m still thinking about it.

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Further reading: Three Stooges FAQ in the New York Times

Three Stooges FAQ by David J. Hogan is available from ApplauseBooks.com, Amazon, B&N, and your local bookstores.

This entertaining and informative study of the Three Stooges focuses on the nearly 190 two-reel short comedies the boys made at Columbia Pictures during the years 1934-59. Violent slapstick? Of course, but these comic gems are also peerlessly crafted and enthusiastically played by vaudeville veterans Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, and Joe – arguably the most popular and long-lived screen comics ever produced by Hollywood. Seventy-five stills, posters, and other images – many never before published in book form – bring colorful screen moments to life and help illuminate the special appeal of key shorts. Exclusive sections include a Stooges biographical and career timeline; a useful, colorful history of the structure and behind-the-camera personnel of the Columbia two-reel unit; and personality sidebars about more than 30 popular players who worked frequently with the Stooges. Also included is a filmography that covers all 190 shorts, plus a bibliography, making this the ultimate guide for all Three Stooges fans!

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About HLPAPG

Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on April 18, 2012, in Comedy, Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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