The Three Stooges Bring Their Slapstick Into the 21st Century, For Better or Worse

Remakes and reboots are the acme of corporate entertainment. Perhaps it was always so. Repetition usually makes money, a consumerist morphine drip. But The Three Stooges?

When it was reported that the Farrelly brothers were casting a Stooge remake, I, like countless Stooge fans, took a dim view. How could they possibly improve on the original? Or was this a cynical effort to cash in on Stooge nostalgia? None of it made sense.

For one thing, The Three Stooges are from another world. Their humor sprang from vaudeville, which was dead by the time they were making Columbia shorts. They crashed through the Depression, World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By television’s arrival, they were pretty much through. After school TV kept them alive for subsequent generations, mine included. But they weren’t modern or fresh, and apart from die-hard devotees, the Stooges faded away.

Peter Farrelly explained that he and brother Bobby wanted to reanimate the Stooges for the social media generation. They sought to honor the classic team while easing them into our distracted age. I’m not the biggest Farrelly booster — their comedy is too cartoonish and broad for me. They clearly owe a debt to early slapstick, and this, on paper, recommended them for the Stooge project.

I had my doubts going in, but I must confess, the Farrellys got the important things right. The film is far from perfect. The main story (what there is, anyway) about saving an orphanage is so hackneyed that no amount of meta can improve it. And showing the Stooges as children widely missed the mark. But once Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Will Sasso appear, the energy shifts. The laughter begins.

The Three Stooges is essentially two films: 1) the tedious back story and largely wasted supporting cast (Larry David especially); 2) the Stooges themselves. Hayes, Diamantopoulos, and Sasso are simply amazing. Their timing and characterizations are razor sharp. They’re so good that you don’t feel cheated by an imitation. Everyone else in the film are cut-outs by comparison. You wonder why they’re taking up the Stooges’ oxygen.

These Stooges begin as a comedy tribute band, then quickly launch into their own music. Stooge violence always had a punk intensity. These guys strip it down even further. Brief brutal strikes as another language. There are moments of physical grace, an attention to detail that reveals none of the effort that Hayes, Diamantopoulos, and Sasso put into their characters. Their respect for the source material is clear, yet they aren’t bound to it.

I doubt that other classic comedians or teams could withstand a contemporary makeover. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields were too singular to be recast. Same with the Marx Brothers. Maybe Abbott and Costello, but that’s still a reach. My fear is that someone will want to redo Laurel and Hardy, who in my view remain the greatest film comedy team. Stan and Ollie’s relationship was solid, subtle, unique. There’s so much unspoken brilliance between them, their timing organic to the men playing them. A simple impression, no matter how fine, would miss deeper rhythms.

The Three Stooges lend themselves to reinterpretation. Moe, Larry, and Curly are frenzied outlines, their characters ankle deep. There really isn’t much to them, but once they begin slapping and slamming each other, what exists jumps to life. Many comics have imitated the Stooges, but none that I know of fully captured their furious idiocy. Until now.

Personally, I’d love to see an edgier Stooges movie. Not necessarily cruder or more “adult,” but something with a snappier narrative, weirder physical gags. The talent is certainly there. Peter Farrelly says that if this Stooges film financially succeeds, he could see bringing Shemp into a sequel. This intrigues me. Shemp was the original Third Stooge and possessed a stranger energy than Curly. I’m not sure who could accurately play Shemp, but based on this Three Stooges cast, I trust the Farrelly brothers to find him.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

The Three Stooges Bring Their Slapstick Into the 21st […]