Before getting down to the Farrelly Brothers’ well-intended, misbegotten The Three Stooges, I feel the need to correct a downright weird misperception about the actual Three Stooges films that seems to be positively epidemic with fans of the three and even some critics (who really ought to know better). Folks, you may have seen those 200 short films the Stooges made for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959 on TV—in fact, you probably did—but they were not TV episodes. They were 20-minute short films—called two-reelers, because movies originally came on 1,000-foot reels running about 10 minutes each. (Now, in the waning days of 35mm, films come on 2,000-foot reels and have for some considerable time.) They were meant to be shown—and originally were shown—in theaters before the feature picture. Like most old movies, they ended up on TV for the simple reason that they were cheap. But they were not made for TV.
Now, about this new film. The Three Stooges is to movies what a tribute band is to music—an attempt to replicate the real thing. It was made by two guys—Peter and Bobby Farrelly—who obviously love the Three Stooges, and have an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of their short films judging by the inclusion of old gags and bits of dialogue in the course of the film. They’ve also managed to find three guys who kind of look like the originals—at least in make-up—and who can effectively mimic their moves and voices. At its best, the results are about on a par with a really lively (maybe too lively) wax museum. It kind of looks like the Stooges, and it kind of looks like a Stooges movie, but it feels artificial—much in the way a bowl of wax fruit looks like real fruit.
Like most people of my generation, I grew up on the short films—mostly on TV, though I may easily have seen some of the last-gasp shorts in a theater—but I couldn’t be called a fan. My taste in short films ran more toward Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. The Three Stooges were a little too frenetic for me, and my patience with them hitting, slapping and poking each other was (and is) limited. But I have a good working knowledge of the boys in their prime (which is what’s being attempted here), and I appreciate the casual surrealism of those films. The idea of the trio disguising themselves in Santa Claus outfits and arriving in a sleigh to get inside an Arab palace (1938’s Wee Wee Monsieur) is just too weird not to like. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of thing that the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges does not have.
It’s not that the Three Stooges originals are dated (though some of the topical gags have), it’s that the boys always inhabited their own world that was only vaguely like the real one. In a real Stooges film you were likely to find them encountering mad scientists, witch doctors, Egyptian mummies, snooty dowagers—you name it. The new film has none of this. What it has instead is a sappy plot about saving a Catholic orphanage (stolen from 1980’s The Blues Brothers), a duel involving peeing babies (no, I’m not making that up), and the intrusion of the supremely untalented cast of The Jersey Shore. Oh, yes, and there’s a Stooges origin story. (Comic book movies have much to answer for.) The best idea in the film was probably casting Larry David as a nun called Sister Mary-Mengele, but the inspiration goes no further than the casting and the name. Apart from recognizing the bits and pieces lifted from the old shorts, I found no joy in any of this.
I suppose the film may hold some appeal to young children and to diehard Stooge fans, but they’d all be better served by revisiting the short films on DVD rather than this ill-advised simulacrum. Rated PG for slapstick action violence, some rude and suggestive humor including language.