As a couple of neophyte writer-directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly began their careers with a broad slapstick comedy about two morons. Now, almost two decades later, the hugely successful sibling filmmakers have gone on to make a broad slapstick comedy about three morons. Thus, one can view their latest offering, The Three Stooges, as a return to their roots, a loving tribute to the immortal trio and the classic shorts that shaped their comedic sensibilities and served as inspiration for their Dumb & Dumber (1994) and practically everything that followed it.
Or you can look at it as indicating that their ambitions in the last 18 years have increased by a factor of one and a half.
Either way you slice it: Two movies, five morons, one Smackdown. Are those the opening bars of “Three Blind Mice” I hear?
The new Three Stooges reboot gives our heroes something the beloved trio were never afforded in the dozens of shorts they made in their long careers and numerous incarnations: An origin story! Not much of one, but what’d you expect? As the film opens, they are dumped on an orphanage’s doorstep (for reasons never explained, but certainly guessable), in a duffel bag opened by Sister Mary-Mengele (ha?), played by Larry David (for reasons not so guessable).
Soon, they are fully grown into the Moe, Larry and Curly we know and love (or hate, depending largely on your gender), uncannily resurrected, respectively, by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso. What follows is a sort of The Jerk-meets-The Blues Brothers excuse for a plot, with the three bickering buffoons venturing out into the real world in hopes of raising $830,000 to save the orphanage. This leads to one extended slapstick set-piece at a hospital, another at a zoo and another at a swanky party.
It also leads to a lot of head-bonking, eye-poking, face-slapping and hair-pulling (head and nose), which is to say that the Farrellys (and co-writer Mike Cerrone), largely have the good sense not to mess with a classic formula… right up until when the cast of Jersey Shore turns up.
Two sweet-natured buddies, dumb dog groomer Harry (Jeff Daniels) and arguably dumber limo driver Lloyd (Jim Carrey), decide they’ve had enough of their marginal lives in Los Angeles, so they hit the road for Aspen, where, as Lloyd says, “the beer flows like wine.” It’s also where Lloyd hopes to reunite with Mary (Lauren Holly), a comely passenger whose briefcase he grabbed when she apparently left it behind by accident, but which we soon learn was part of a kidnapping ransom drop.
With two shady characters (Mike Starr and Karen Duffy) on their tails, the two hit the road in Harry’s canine-pimped van and get into a series of wacky adventures involving hot peppers, urine-filled beer bottles, a laxative prank gone very wrong, a headless parakeet, and a fantasy sequence in which Lloyd lights his farts and then goes all Bruce Lee on a series of waiters. Oh, and who could forget what Carrey’s character does not oversell as “the most annoying sound in the world”?
One thing you can say about the Farrellys: They’re consistent. Almost two decades separate these films, but similarities abound: Both feature complete idiots leaving home for the first time to embark on a quest. Both plots lead to a swanky party hosted by a wealthy family involved in a criminal plot. Both have sequences involving fart-lighting and copious amounts of urine. But where they part company most significantly is that Dumb & Dumber, even on a second viewing 19 years after its release, still offers a handful of solid chuckles and one or two big laughs, mostly in its on-the-road first half (naturally, these numbers inflate a bit if you’re 13 years old or intoxicated… or ideally both), whereas I sat through Three Stooges from beginning to end utterly stone-faced.
What went wrong? Certainly no blame goes to the three valiant leads, who deliver mind-bogglingly good imitations that recreate the look, movements and voices of the originals down to the smallest detail. In fact, the Farrellys have always excelled at casting, going all the way back to D&D, which provided Carrey with only his second starring role (following the miserable but insanely successful Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), and it’s still among his best comic performances. He is wisely tamped-down, mostly prevented from the monstrous hamming and scenery-devouring that has almost single-handedly wrecked many of his films. Even rabid non-fans of his can enjoy his work here, and Daniels, who’d done nothing like this before and hasn’t since, is an inspired match for him, leaving us to wonder why he hasn’t done more comedy.
But as for Three Stooges, something’s just… off. Maybe the concept itself is fundamentally flawed; there’s something exhilarating about the actual Three Stooges, the guys who invented this cheerfully juvenile lunacy and carried it out with such conviction, that perhaps no imitation, no matter how accurate, could capture. Not helping matters are some unfortunate Farrelly-esque flourishes, such as their usual gratuitous sentimentality: Early on, the 10-year-old Moe makes a sacrifice for the other two that just feels violently un- Moe-like. There’s also an extended nursery sequence in which newborn babies are used as squirt guns (too potty-humor for the Stooges), several bizarre music cue choices (Talking Heads? Allman Brothers?), and worst of all, the third-act Jersey Shore plot thread, which is unwise partially because it wrong-headedly separates Moe from the other two, and partially because it’s the goddamn Jersey Shore.
Dumb & Dumber suffers no such comparisons, and while certainly no masterpiece, it remains among the Farrellys’ best and most enduring films. Unlike so much of their later work, it doesn’t feel the need to go for the over-the-top gross-out sex and potty set-pieces in every scene; yes, it features one of the most protracted bowel movement scenes ever committed to film, but it’s also happy to settle for getting modest giggles from Carrey squirting Binaca the wrong way and remarking on how he’s going to impress a girl with his “rapist wit.” While calling it “smart” might be a little strong, it’s certainly smarter than it has to be, and its importance (yes, I actually just used that word) as having revived a long-dormant brand of raunchy, silly, guilty-pleasure comedy shouldn’t be overlooked.
In short, practically anyone of any age can enjoy Dumb & Dumber, whereas Three Stooges is a movie that Stooge fans will appreciate for the pitch-perfect performances but probably not fully enjoy, while little children will probably enjoy but probably won’t fully appreciate its most impressive aspects.
Dumb & Dumber has its flaws, to be sure, but do you know anyone who actually dislikes it? It’s a charmingly goofy bit of fluff that kick-started the Farrellys’ careers, cemented Jim Carrey’s comic superstardom, spawned a variety of oft-quoted lines (“So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance!”), and made it okay for movies to be mindless and raunchy and, yes, gleefully dumb again, for better or worse. I don’t know if I can quite say that it should be seen, but it’s one of a handful of comedies from the past two decades that pretty much everyone has seen, and if you haven’t seen it in a while, there are plenty of worse ways to kill 90 minutes. Whereas, Three Stooges will, I suspect, be shrugged off as an admirable imitation experiment and an adequate diversion for the little ones. Dumb & Dumber easily smacks it down with a poke in the eyes, a fist in the belly, and a bop to the head. How would the Stooges put it? Ah, yes…
Wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-wa. Yoink!