Saturday, March 23, 2013
Ambivalence for "The Three Stooges: the Movie"
What is it about three men that seems to create a mystique? In the 1970s we had Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and "Dandy Don" Meredith. I suppose Howard was the leader (like "Moe"), "Dandy Don" the clown and Frank the straight man. Oh, don't underestimate the importance of the "straight man." The creative minds behind the Three Stooges understood this fully.
Gifford did deliver a classic funny line once: "She was almost perfect" (after the camera panned in on an attractive woman who proceeded to remove some effluence from her nose).
We saw the "three men" formula again with Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy and the notorious O.J. Simpson. Kennedy was the straight man, watching with amazement as the comic, Nielsen, was an impostor in place of an opera singer for the National Anthem. Simpson took the pratfalls. We laughed as Simpson was subjected to real violence, within comic boundaries of course.
Freud once said "all comedy is derived from sadism."
Thus we come to the subject of the Three Stooges, the mention of which probably makes you instantly smile or wince. There are those who seem programmed not to like the Three Stooges. My old boss at the Morris newspaper, Jim Morrison, is one. He recalls getting introduced to the iconic comic act at the Halloween parties given by the Morris Lions Club for the Morris kids. The Lions set up a reel-to-reel movie projector! Power point was way off in the future. We had "slide projectors." Remember the stand-up comic who had the line "How'd that get in there?"
I remember at least one of those Halloween parties being held at the "wrestling gym" of the old, now-abandoned school. (The city is finally talking about demolition. But why is it just the city's issue? Shouldn't the cost be spread around the school district? Did the city get taken on this? The city's excuse for why the site hasn't been re-developed, is "the 2008 economic downturn." It's always nice to have an excuse, isn't it?)
So, we have this rather interesting predisposition to either like or not like the Three Stooges. Like it's sort of primal. Freud might be consulted further. I have read that women tend not to like the Three Stooges. Imagine that.
Hollywood is trying to make the Stooges a current phenomenon. "The Three Stooges: the Movie" is from the Farrelly brothers. Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly have a comedy track record to be sure. I confess I'm not "into" their work. I have watched only portions of "There's Something About Mary" on cable TV. Another exhibit is "Dumb and Dumber." Jeff Daniels is typecast in my mind as a Civil War officer from "Gettysburg." (Aren't we due for a new movie about that battle?)
All that the Farrellys have touched has not turned to gold. "Hall Pass" was an arguably vile offering. Could they rebound with their "Three Stooges" project? They didn't have to create any new comedic chemistry or model. The mold was right there waiting for them. It was a resurrection project all the way.
The movie was on the drawing board for a long time. It had to survive MGM's bankruptcy. It survived rumors of certain "name" actors filling the key roles. Sean Penn as Larry? As it turned out, Sean Hayes stepped into the role of Larry, a Stooge whose humor was, shall we say, understated. A writer once observed "Larry really wasn't very funny but it wouldn't be the same without him."
Ah, the comedic chemistry. It might be hard to appreciate how important some of these secondary players are. Each of the Stooges represented the "Stooge spirit" in a particular way. They were vagrant-like without seeming fazed at all by that. They had an optimism and determination that defied their incompetence. They were good-hearted.
"There was a lot more to the Three Stooges than violence," a critic once said.
It's chiseled in stone that critics must approach all movies objectively. Given the sort of innate acceptance or rejection of the Three Stooges we all feel, there's a problem for reviewing "The Three Stooges: the Movie." Maybe disclaimers would be in order. The non-believers aren't going to be swayed by a well-made movie. My old boss Morrison certainly wouldn't be. I imagine I'm in the "believers" camp. While I wouldn't join a fan club, I find the Stooges' entertainment more than mildly appealing.
Will Sasso plays Curly Howard. Some Stooges fans might suggest there never was a substitute for Curly. He was the burly slapstick master who acted childlike. I loved him as the pro wrestler who was a stand-in for "Bust-Off" who had gotten drunk. Curly beat up his foe when he got a whiff of "Wild Hyacinth" perfume.
The script for the new movie was not written to really showcase the Sasso character. I'd love to see Sasso as the pro wrestler. The script was written with balance in mind for the three performers. Sasso does well with the difficult task of bringing "Curly" back to life. If I had been told before seeing this movie, that Sasso would do so well, I would have assumed his character stood out, even stealing the movie. It does not. It's as if Curly's presence had to be suppressed a bit. The scriptwriters would have nothing to do with Sasso (as Curly) stealing this movie.
The script actually seems tilted toward Moe, played by a guy whose last name is a sobriety test for when you're typing: Chris Diamantopoulos. Critics have raved especially about "Chris D.'s" performance. "He owns the role," one said, whereas the other two just seemed like impersonators.
Critics have been puzzled or indecisive about Hayes as Larry. I read one who raved and another who gave a thumbs-down.
Clearly these three actors were going to be judged by exacting standards. The ambivalence about Hayes as Larry might reflect the subtle and understated role of Larry Fine himself. He was important but it was hard sometimes to understand why.
Roger Ebert described the new movie as "the best you can do for 2012." He reflected, "I didn't laugh much." And he asked, "Was it really necessary?" He admits that the acting, or impersonation, was solid.
About a third of the way into the movie, I was tempted to press the "stop" button on my DVD player. The movie just wasn't working for me. It seemed strained, this effort to make the now-dead Stooges "real" again. Yes, wouldn't it be great to see "Bogie" and Gable come to life again? Except that it just can't happen, any more than we can gather the '69 Mets and Orioles together and see that Series again. I felt like I should be watching an authentic Stooges DVD or tape. These are available at our Morris Public Library.
I stuck with the whole movie and found that by the end, it was acceptable entertainment, or as Ebert would say, "the best you can do for 2012." Like Ebert I never really laughed.
Was this movie a museum exhibit or genuine comedy? Because of this lingering question, I hope there's no sequel. We don't need "The Three Stooges Christmas Movie." Not that I'd rule it out.
"The Three Stooges: the Movie" is organized into three segments. The Farrellys are trying to re-create the feel of those "shorts" complete with the type of "still" (and music) that would introduce them. But these are not true "shorts," as the story continues pretty seamlessly. The original Stooges were all about "shorts." They were a quick and guilty pleasure. I suspect they were shown before the main attraction. Thus they didn't tax the mind too much.
Storylines were basic and banal and even that might be generous. A job needs to be done and here come the Stooges in their painting overalls and with ladder etc. Simple storylines were much more common in an earlier age. Today we take for granted sub-plots. A complicated storyline is actually anathema to the Stooges' shtick. The new movie has the kind of finesse and complications in the storyline that are typical of today. Maybe this is mainly how the movie loses some authenticity. Full-length features were not the Stooges' thing to begin with.
The storyline has the Stooges seeking $830,000 to keep an orphanage open. We learn of a murder plot against a millionaire. "Chris D." as Moe ends up on reality TV. I liked this aspect of the movie, unlike most of the reviewers I read. The notorious "Jersey Shore" crew gives the backdrop. I have never actually watched that show. Moe is good for their ratings. Eventually there's a financial plum from this.
There's a black widow wife character played by the sultry Sofia Vergara. (I must avoid the Freudian slip of typing "Viagra.") She schemes to murder her rich husband, a childhood acquaintance of the Stooges.
The husband character is impressed by the unconditional friendship among the Stooges. He feels brethren with them even though he's on the safe side of the "sane" line. He likes them just like the brawny pro wrestler "Bust-Off" in that old Stooges short.
Maybe we like the Stooges because they seem so non-threatening. Sasso, Hayes and "Chris D." nail the timing and mannerisms of the originals. That's commendable. But one is left wondering if this is a truly inspired fresh product or more of a Las Vegas stage show featuring impersonators. Maybe the lesson is to leave the past alone.
The real Stooges did nearly 200 short films. Their peak was before World War II but they hardly faded away after that. "Shemp" replaced Curly. "Shemp" had successors too. The Stooges had a formula or philosophy that worked through transitions. At the end it was Joe DeRita in the role of the third Stooge. He always looked like he could act like the original Curly but he really couldn't.
There was a biopic a few years ago about the Three Stooges that I actually found to be more moving than the new movie. The biopic was the type of movie I'd like to watch again. The new movie isn't.
The Farrellys made a bold and committed effort to be sure they truly paid homage. Jane Lynch (from "Glee") was a delight as always as "Mother Superior."
I'm glad this whole troupe got together to try to resurrect the classic act and classic imagery. But I'm afraid, one is enough.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org