April 13, 2012

Beyond Here Lies Nyukkin'

by Vadim Rizov

The Three Stooges

The original proposed cast for the Farrelly brothers' feature was a dramatic power-house—Jim Carrey, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn—that would've underscored every eye-gouge and double-slap with considerable darkness. After more than a decade of development delay, the resulting The Three Stooges is an angst-free 91 minutes, the zippiest Farrelly project since their '90s Dumb and Dumber heyday. Watching it is like being run over by a bus and liking it.

The Three Stooges have their admirers, but it's hard for anyone outside of 12-year-old boys to summon up much enthusiasm for them, your humble critic included. (Bob Dylan's a notable fan, for what it's worth.) The shorts repetitively cycle through permutations of pain on dingy black-and-white sets. Expanding this to feature length turns the Stooges into the Blues Brothers: raised by long-suffering nuns, they're forced to venture out into the world to raise $830,000 in 30 days lest the orphanage be shut down. The three-act plot is divided into a trio of "shorts" that more or less mimic the length of a two-reeler. Frequent location changes and the Farrellys' usual flood-it-with-flat-light approach literally brighten up the drab template.

The Three Stooges

The plot—such as it is—has Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Curly (Will Sasso) and Larry (Sean Hayes) falling out temporarily during their quest. Moe inadvertently ends up as Jersey Shore's newest cast member, while Curly and Larry pay a violent visit to the zoo before tracking down their pal. ("There are three of them?" MTV's producer grins.) In other hands, this would smack of pop culture-referential-desperation, but the Farrellys have been consistent in inviting mediocre mass-culture staples (Tony Robbins in Shallow Hal, Joy Behar and Kathy Griffin in Hall Pass) to show up without fear of mockery, and in any case watching Moe smack Snooki and JWoww around is satisfying enough to not be lame.

Like The Muppets, The Three Stooges dramatizes its makers/fans' fears that their adored youthful touchstone may not translate to a new generation. Much as Kermit and the gang raise money to fend off obsolescence, the Stooges' orphanage existence is a product of the (explicitly stated) "recent economic downturn," their clowning a now-welcome alternative to an infinitely scummier entertainment landscape. This isn't to say that the Farrellys are taking the high road. The gross-out gags have been brought along and somehow not cracked a PG rating, even with a CGI lion scrotum and baby projectile-urination fight.

The Three Stooges

There are no third-act lessons learned, but most won't notice since the jokes come flying at a furious clip. The pace compensates for the hit-to-miss laugh ratio, which looks uneven just on paper: a deservedly-left-for-dead comic staple, the pretentious and heavily-accented French chef, is inexplicably resurrected. The family-film format strips the Farrellys of their normal temptation to dilute punchlines with conspicuous displays of goodwill. Instead, they offer up something like Freddy Got Fingered for kids, with the Stooges succeeding in surreal style without actually doing anything right.

The Farrellys reserve the film's only attempted substance for their villainess Lydia (Sofia Vergara), a standard femme fatale who hires the oblivious Stooges to kill her husband, refocusing the boys' obliviousness towards the consequences of physical harm in a graver direction. Lydia's shown in bed reading conservative rag The Weekly Standard—not a stand-alone political gag, as there's later a brief but unmistakable assertion when one of the nunnery's children lies at death's door because she doesn't have health insurance. Her miraculous healing later is similar to the end of Kaurismaki's Le Havre (stay with me here), a fairy-tale in which racism and European xenophobia magically evaporates along with the hero's wife's terminal condition. If Fox News hated The Muppets making the oilman a villain, they're really going to despise this overt talking-point. Nyuk nyuk.

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Posted by ahillis at April 13, 2012 2:08 PM