American film comedy used to be such a simple subject for people with any taste at all. It was almost universally accepted that slapstick physical comedy anyway -- got worse as movies went on: that great silent film geniuses Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon were the best of all and then, in descending order, came the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis and finally, those 1930s and '40s also-rans who became 1950s after-school favorites that no one could kill, the Three Stooges.
Never mind that the Three Stooges were a going concern long before their takeover of the juvenile mind. Or that their witless, puerile tastelessness compared to, say, Keaton or the Marx Brothers the way an Uncle Scrooge comic book cover compares to a Dali painting or a Rembrandt. The new Farrelly Brothers "The Three Stooges" is the kind of movie that strangers ask critics about in elevators. Or grocery stores. Or gas stations.
"Have you seen it yet?" "How is it? I'm taking my son to it Friday."
The great old joke used to be this: "The basic difference between men and women is simple. All men think the Three Stooges are funny. And all women don't."
When I quoted it on an elevator recently, two women who work on another floor here objected vigorously. They like the Three Stooges, too.
What is anyone to do? They'll never die.
They're still being rerun on the AMC and IFC cable networks and they're still the same moronic, puerile, hugely influential knockabout act they've always been with all three stooges inflicting comic violence on each other with hapless unconcern and Moe, especially, taking physical abuse and brutality to be his singular entitlement in a comic world that is seldom kind to idiots.
That, of course, is the whole point of the Three Stooges. And why they've never left American consciousness since the first 1950s kids generation adopted them wholesale as their favorite after-school entertainment of choice in a primordial TV age. In no time at all, those former vaudeville "stooges" to Ted Healy were being imitated by almost every male child in America. If they couldn't do Curly's patented virtuoso clap-and-finger-roll with any aplomb, they could always do Moe's "pick out two" followed by a "mock" two-finger poke in the eyes (guarded at the last second, of course, by a clever Larryesque deflected hand suddenly held up in front of the bridge of the nose).
Parents and other creatures of taste and discernment were appalled. They still are. But the Stooges spoke one of low comedy's primal languages and Moe -- in particular -- had discovered something with his total bullying entitlement that is profoundly true to the worst in the American character.
You might not be a Curly or even an MOR schlimiehl like Larry. But somewhere in this world, you've surely encountered a Moe. And you'd just love it if he (or she) would command you to "pick out two."
So how's the Farrelly Brothers' re-creation?
It's funny. And dreadful. And astonishingly stupid. In other words, everything that everyone no doubt expected. What they might not have expected is that, as awful as it is some of the time, it's also quite brilliant and audacious.
What the Farrelly Brothers are doing here is nothing less than reinventing the Three Stooges for the 21st century. They've got three plausible actors replicating them -- best is Will Sasso as Curly, worst is shrimpy Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, plus Sean Hayes as Larry -- and they've stuck them into their nitwit tasteless Farrelly Brothers parody of a plot of the sort the world has been howling at shamefacedly since "There's Something About Mary," "Kingpin" and "Dumb and Dumber."
The Farrelly boys don't make good movies any more than the Stooges did. They make really bad and stupid and tasteless ones with huge laughs in them. There are plentiful laughs here (none huge). But there are moments where their reinvented Stooges are so weird that they are breathtakingly surreal. You haven't seen "salmon farming" until you've seen the boys tending fish littered all over the turf on a golf course.
I laughed reasonably often. I rolled my eyes and cringed just as often.
The boys are raised in an orphanage run by Jane Lynch where the school enforcer -- Sister Mary Mengele (take a few seconds to savor the last name) -- is played by Larry David in a habit. Another nun is played by Jennifer Hudson.
Sofia Vergara plays a wife trying to get her rich husband killed. There's one middling joke about the much-fabled expanse of Vergara's bosom that you just know the Farrelly boys could have expanded wildly if the rating hadn't been PG.
And -- I refuse to tell you exactly how -- the main cast of "Jersey Shore" shows up in the final episode for some funny stuff to show you just how in tune the Farrelly boys are. They know their true place in the American comic continuum -- down there with the Three Stooges and Snooki and the Sitch and all the rest of the things we think we have a duty to be ashamed of.
And laugh at.
To think, once upon a time Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Jim Carrey thought they might have a go at this.
The eternal spirit of Moe, undoubtedly, came back to earth, gave all three a shot to the noggin and brought them back to their senses.
Without even needing them to "pick out two."
THE THREE STOOGES
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, Chris Dimantopoulos, Sofia Vergara, Larry David, Jane Lynch
DIRECTOR: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
RATING: PG for slapstick action violence, some rude and suggestive humor including language.
THE LOWDOWN: The nitwit trio tries to save the orphanage that spawned them and wind up in the world of reality TV.