The Farrelly brothers have earned both praise and criticism for their depiction of the physically and mentally disabled, largely because, in their own words, the duo habitually brings them down from the clouds and paints them as ordinary people, capable of admirable and/or loathsome character traits. More important is the fact that “they” are here, and they are us. In a weird way, that can be a little disturbing to some folks, but films such as Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, and Me, Myself & Irene illustrate their unique treatise on democracy, in which we are all collectively equal in our wonderful, horrible, messy humanity: a whole wide world of freaks.
It should be no surprise that, in The Three Stooges, the net the sibling directors cast into the sea of human diversity has trawled up the cast of Jersey Shore. MTV’s hit program, which is only for the moment the most exemplary parade of the dregs of our species, features a crew of alcoholic, skin-cancer-baiting, self-involved bums that have somehow held our national viewership in thrall, even as many of us would just as soon see them transferred laterally to a reality show about Marine Corps boot camp, surviving in the Alaskan wilderness, or earning $7.25 an hour doing data entry. Even as Snooki and “The Situation” are, in the context of the film, held at arm’s length (figuring into a second-half subplot, they’re often seen only on monitors and television sets), the Farrellys seem to be saying: “Yes, we even have room for these people.” And just as Charlie Chaplin, in his penultimate film, A King in New York, had enough room in his large heart to spread his empathetic blanket across a deposed European monarch, they are not wrong.
As for the actual, far more familiar Stooges, their place in Western culture is almost exactly at the midpoint between Chaplin and Jersey Shore. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, they were not themselves great auteur directors, or worked with any; the same could be said of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, but their respective phenomena overrided the impact of any decision-making body behind the camera, as a hurricane is to a weatherman. Of the countless films they made during their (amorphous) multi-decade run, undergoing nearly as many lineup changes as the Fall and Yes put together, no single Three Stooges short or feature is an actual, legitimate masterpiece of the cinema—that is to say, none has been recognized as such. But it is, in collected form, an undeniable cultural bulwark, a necessity, like air and water.
In the hands of the Farrellys, the Stooges are, unsurprisingly, made into totems of the duo’s favored themes and values: separation anxiety, and the special qualities of home and family, however dysfunctional. In the Farrelly universe, achieving fame and fortune is almost a silly lark compared to coping with being apart from your loved ones, be they your real family or your surrogate one. It’s true that it’s an old chestnut of contemporary Hollywood comedy that close friends must undergo a dramatic, trial separation in the second act before being reunited in the third, but the Farrellys must be the only filmmakers who have made it their business to really own that particular cliché, and to make it less of an obligatory (and often hollow) dramatic feint. When Curly (Will Sasso) tells Larry (Sean Hayes) that the latter’s smacks, kicks, and eye-pokes just aren’t the same as Moe’s (Chris Diamantopoulos), it may come across as some weird compromise between classic Stooges slapstick and feature-film semi-seriousness, but this is Farrelly territory, so you’d better believe it.
After what seems like an eternity of inanity and incompetence in the realm of Cats & Dogs and Squeakquels, the Farrelly brothers’ direction is downright classical, with clean lines and an old-Hollywood respect for professional-grade composition and longish takes, leaving plenty of room for some well-executed routines of bloodless combat. It doesn’t quite rank with the Farrelly’s best work; it’s more late George Marshall than peak Frank Tashlin, but not too unlike the latter. In the arithmetic of the broader Stooges, multi-filmic narrative, it’s quite good, if it never quite achieves the heights of blasphemous inventiveness to be found in something like Kingpin, or the deceptive simplicity of Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. Conceding that the downgrade is probably the price to be paid for PG-rated Farrelly brothers hijinks, it remains a respectful, heartfelt, and entertaining tribute to the eternal trio.