Curly (Will Sasso) having an epic shellfish malfunction(image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)
Physical humor is an effective form of comedy because it needs no interpretation. Pratfalls and sight gags transcend the barriers of language and culture. The key to the Stooges' universal appeal lay in their canny realization that there wasn't a person alive who hadn't chuckled at some know-it-all who hits his own thumb while demonstrating the proper use of a hammer. The boys understood the comic value of pain, and elevated personal injury to an elaborately choreographed art form.
The absurd levels of violence inflicted upon the seemingly indestructible Larry, Moe and Curly--usually by each other--would be horrifying if it weren't for the comical sound effects. Stooges films were like comedy movies by Sam Peckinpah, without the gore. Case in point: the following excruciating clip from their notorious 1943 short, They Stooge to Conga, in which Moe gets a spike in the eye and Curly gets a little impromptu rhinoplasty with a grinding wheel:
FOR YEARS, Hollywood has flirted with the idea of reviving the Stooges with a new set of actors, however given the gruesome track record of vintage franchises "re-imagined" for modern audiences, the prospects seemed grim. One need look only as far as The All New Adventures of Laurel and Hardy: For Love or Mummy (1999), starring Bronson Pinchot and Gailard Sartain--which critic Richard Scheib listed as one of the "worst movies of 1999"--in order to appreciate the potential pitfalls.
|Not-so-fine mess: Pinchot and Sartrain as Laurel & Hardy|
The problem with most films about "Hollywood legends" is that they usually suck. This probably has to do with Hollywood's baffling penchant for shoehorning legendary characters into dreary, cliché-ridden biopics that tell us as little about the real person as they do about the talent that made them a legend, Chaplin notwithstanding.
|Official Three Stooges logo (C3 Entertainment)|
INITIAL RUMORS of a new Three Stooges movie invoked visions of a sappy Lifetime biopic in which the boys struggle with money and fame while trying to hold their marriages together. Blah, blah, blah. Or worse, a bloated star vehicle in which Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler plays all three Stooges thanks to the miracle of CGI and prosthetic makeup. You laugh, but I'll bet they've both pitched the idea. (When I first heard about the project, I prayed that neither Murphy nor Sandler would be allowed within rifle range of the script--unless it was on an actual rifle range.)
|Can't take them anywhere: Larry (Sean Hayes), Curly (Will Sasso, with head submerged), and Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) in The Three Stooges (image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)|
|image: Caroline Bonarde Ucci|
Sean Penn as Larry? Lanky, dimpled, button-eyed Jim Carrey as Curly? Ridiculous! But the Farrellys knew that, of course, which is why they continued to prank us. Next thing you know, del Toro and Carrey were out, along with Sean Penn, who was replaced by Paul Giamatti--who was subsequently replaced by Sean Penn again, who later dropped out yet again. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson, Justin Timberlake and Larry David were all reportedly jostling to play Larry.
|Dueling Larrys?: (L-R) Sean Penn, Paul Giamatti, Woody Harrelson, Justin Timberlake, Larry David (see additional photo credits at end of page)|
THE THREE STOOGES
"Moe" (Chris Diamantopoulos)
|The Two Moes: Moe Howard (left) and Chris Diamantopoulos (right) (image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)|
|(image: David Shankbone)|
(Above) Chris Diamantopoulos channels Robin Williams in the award-winning 2005 NBC biopic Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Mork and Mindy' (part 1 of 8)
ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS for any actor to do is to portray another performer, especially an icon whose every gesture and inflection are indelibly burned into our consciousness. It takes more than just looking like that person, or "pretending" to be them. One must be able to submerge the self and disappear into that character. In the new Three Stooges trailer, the chameleon-like Diamantopoulos does just that with an uncanny rendition of Moe, using no makeup other than the signature mop haircut. He somehow even manages to make himself look shorter and stockier; when he orders Curly (Will Sasso) to "come here!", he perfectly replicates the famous Moe growl. Hilarious!
"Curly" (Will Sasso)
|The original Curly Howard (left) and Will Sasso (right)|
The great thing about Will Sasso, aside from the fact that he looks like Curly Howard, is that he's one of the most effortlessly funny people on the planet. He doesn't even have to try. He just can't help it--it's a gift. The sketches he did on MADtv were funnier than almost anything on Saturday Night Live; It says something about Sasso that, while he looks nothing like Robert De Niro or Arnold Schwarzeneggar, he does the most painfully funny impressions of De Niro and Arnold I've ever seen. (click the hyperlinks to watch)
Curly was easily the most knuckleheaded of the three Stooges, so there ought to be plenty for Sasso to do. I was impressed by what I saw of him in the trailer, especially when he asks Kate Upton if she's had a haircut. (I'm laughing just thinking about it.) Over the years, I've seen a lot of people try to do impressions of Curly, but they never get the voice quite right. Will Sasso nailed it.
If you need any more convincing about how funny Sasso is, listen to his hysterical impression of Hulk Hogan on the Bryan Callen Show (contains language):
"Larry" (Sean Hayes)
|The original Larry Fine (left) and Sean Hayes (right)|
The casting of Hayes seemed unusual at first. He's a talented actor with a great natural wit, however his subtler, more sophisticated brand of humor made him an odd choice in light of the burlesque, knockabout comedy normally associated with the Stooges. However, this is the same Sean Hayes who was nominated for a SAG award for his very physical performance as a young, manic Jerry Lewis in the 2003 CBS movie, Martin and Lewis, so he knows something about physical comedy.
In spite of Larry's wild hair, he's actually somewhat less cartoonish than the other Stooges. He isn't as chuckleheaded as Curly and he's not as confrontational as Moe, and there's hint of irony about him, so it makes sense to cast an actor who would bring a certain droll subtlety to the part. And as anyone who's seen Will & Grace can attest, Hayes does droll like nobody's business.
|More fun than a poke in the eye: Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso as the Three Stooges (Image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)|
|(Image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)|
There are also those who will never be happy with updated remakes of anything, the argument being that no remake, regardless of how clever, will ever be as good as the original, so it's pointless to revisit the characters. I enthusiastically disagree. In 1910, Thomas Edison shot a 16-minute film called Frankenstein, inspired by Mary Shelley's novel. The film is historically interesting because of its primitive optical and mechanical special effects, however it's pretty rough sledding for the casual viewer. Imagine what would have happened if, twenty years later--after vast improvements in filmmaking technology--Frankenstein director James Whale had said to Universal president Carl Laemmle, "There's no way we can top the Edison version, so let's just forget the whole thing."
Another example is the BBC One series Sherlock, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play updated versions of Holmes and Watson in 21st century London. Considerable liberties are taken with Arthur Conan Doyle's plotlines, however the show is so blazingly brilliant, even stuffy old purists are saying it's the best version of Holmes anyone has ever done.
|(Image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)|
The point is that it's entirely possible to do updated reboots of venerable characters without sacrificing the qualities that made those characters so memorable to begin with. Heretical as it sounds, the Stooges are no exception. The Larry, Curly and Moe we know from movies and television were not real people. They were fictional characters portrayed by three guys who, in real life, were nothing at all like the nitwits they played on screen.
Over the course of the Stooges' 40-year film career, there was more than one "Curly"; after Larry Fine died, Moe Howard hired Emil Sitka to be the new "Larry." At the end of the day, something tells me the original Larry, Moe, and Curly would be tickled to know that a trio of spirited new actors were breathing fresh life into the characters they created. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
A friend of mine who recently saw the trailer for the new film told me that the Three Stooges were irrelevant. "That kind of humor is dead," he said.
"No it isn't," I replied. "It just has a different name. It's called Jackass."
The Three Stooges aren't about moral ambiguities or complex relationships. They're all about falling down. A bonk on the head or a poke in the eye; childish, unsophisticated belly laughs. Unfortunately, we haven't had much of that lately, and in our sad, troubled, increasingly complicated world, the Stooges may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Three Stooges opens nationwide on Friday, April 13. In the meantime, the most interesting comments are coming from a couple of credible sources who have already seen the film: the actual grandsons of the original Curly Howard. In part 3 of an exclusive interview posted on the film's official website, Curly's grandsons say that they're "very proud" of the film, calling the performances of Diamantopoulos, Sasso and Hayes "stupendous."
I have no doubt.