April 17, 2012

MOVIES: The Three Stooges (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2012)

I don't think that I've ever sat through a single one of the orignal Three Stooges shorts. I've seen bits and pieces here and there, and it always seemed like a particularly brutal form of slapstick, with too much eye-poking and face-slapping for my taste.

So what on earth took me to see the Farrelly brothers' attempt to restart the franchise with a full-length movie? (Which is, logically enough, called The Three Stooges.) It was mostly the appeal of the supporting cast -- Jane Lynch as Mother Superior, Sofia Vergara and Craig Bierko as the principal villains, and (for some reason, this was the most amusing draw for me) Larry David in full habit as Sister Mary Mengele.

You will have gathered from those Mothers and Sisters that there are lots of nuns in the movie. It's structured as a series of three shorts, but the overarching story is the quest of Larry, Moe, and Curly (played here by Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Will Sasso, respectively) to raise enough money to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up.

What most surprised me about the movie is that once you get past the comic violence (and yes, there's a lot of it, and it's occasionally piled on to the point where it becomes unpleasant to sit through), there's a sweetness at the core. As much as these three enjoy pounding on one another, they do care about each other, and the poking and slapping almost comes to feel like a weird expression of that affection.

The bond among the three is so strong that when Moe is separated from the group in the third act, things start to drag. Larry and Curly are less interesting without Moe, and even though the movie's done a clever job of finding precisely the right people to serve as Moe's new companions, his shtick doesn't work as well with other people. (I won't give away that particular punchline, but the minor celebrites who become Moe's new companions are very smartly chosen for their own idiocy.)

The comedy here is, not surprisingly, very broad and not remotely subtle. Some scenes go a bit too far or drag on too long -- a diaper-changing sequence in a hospital maternity ward does both -- but there are some clever punchlines and bits of physical comedy. Will Sasso, as Curly, is a particularly skilled physical clown.

Now if you were never a Stooges person to begin with, this movie isn't going to change your mind. And if you're of the belief that the Stooges are such legendary comic icons that to even attempt re-casting them is blasphemy, then you probably won't enjoy this. (Though I think that reaction is silly; it's not as if the original Stooges were doing anything but clever repackaging of some fairly standard comic archetypes.)

But if you have a soft spot for the Stooges' brand of frenetic slapstick, shameless puns, and nonstop mayhem, then this is a perfectly acceptable variation on the formula. It's by no stretch a brilliant movie, but it's not trying to be. Its aims are low, and it meets them in surprisingly warm fashion.

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