Friday, March 16, 2012

The Three Stooges

Curly (Will Sasso) having an epic shellfish malfunction 
(image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)
IF THE BEST COMEDY is derived from exaggerated misery, that would go a long way toward explaining the unflagging appeal of The Three Stooges, who, nearly fifty years after their last film, remain one of the most popular and beloved comedy acts of all time. 

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
Despite the inherent perils, Hollywood can't seem to resist dusting off its dead funnymen (and women) from time to time in order to shake a little more flour out of the old sack. Sprightly, acid-tongued curmudgeon W.C. Fields got a glum makeover by way of Rod Steiger in the torpid, brooding, W.C. Fields and Me (1976), while the beautiful, funny Thelma Todd was subjected to even shabbier indignities in the godawful TV movie White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991) starring Loni Anderson, formerly of WKRP in Cincinnati. Robert Downey, Jr. fared a little better in Chaplin (1992), but only because it seems to be impossible for him to give a bad performance in anything.  

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)
Word that Bobby and Peter Farrelly were behind project was reassuring; that it wouldn't be a biopic but rather a full-on comedy feature--i.e., an actual "Three Stooges movie"--was even more interesting. And it made sense. With a film catalog that includes such films as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), and Me, Myself and Irene (2000), the Farrelly brothers have essentially been doing Stooges movies their entire career. Their films are frequently disgusting and often sophomoric--as Roger Ebert observed, "Good taste is not their strong suit"--however few other filmmakers are capable of making audiences laugh as loudly or consistently. The funniest movie I had seen prior to Borat (2006) was 1998's There's Something About Mary. If anyone could pull off a Stooges movie, I thought, it would be the Farrelly brothers.

image: Caroline Bonarde Ucci
AS THE PROJECT wended its way through development, strange casting rumors began to swirl, some of which were so spectacularly insane, they could only have been leaked as part of a disinformation campaign by somebody with a twisted sense of humor. (Say, one of the Farrellys?) The most bizarre of these was that big, pumped up, bull-chested Russell Crowe was being considered for the role of the diminutive, chimp-like Moe Howard, which would be only slightly less ridiculous than casting Arnold Schwarzeneggar as Einstein.

image:Étienne André
According to The Atlantic Wire, a year later--around March 2009--more leg-pulls were the order of the day when the snickering Farrellys elbowed each other and "announced" to gullible journalists that Russell Crowe had been replaced by Benicio del Toro as Moe, and that Larry and Curly would be played by Sean Penn and Jim Carrey respectively. MTV News called it "the most bizarre casting revelations in recent Hollywood memory."

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)

Were the Farrellys yanking our chains? Who knows. Given the avalanche of coverage that's been lavished on the story, it's possible they wanted to play their cards close to the vest. In any case, when the smoke cleared, their final casting choices were as brilliant as they were unexpected: Moe would be played by Chris Diamantopoulos, Curly by Will Sasso, and Larry by Sean Hayes--three of the funniest, most wildly talented young actors in Hollywood. That they are all relatively new to the big screen isn't a bad thing, because it means viewers won't be prejudiced by any preconceived expectations that would normally accompany the attachment of some massive A-list movie star to the project. (Diamantopoulos, Sasso and Hayes may not be household names at the moment, but I suspect they soon will be.)


"Moe" (Chris Diamantopoulos)

The Two Moes: Moe Howard (left) and Chris Diamantopoulos (right) (image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment
IN HOLLYWOOD, superlatives are overused to the point of meaninglessness, however it's hard to think of an actor more deserving of the hyperbole than Chris Diamantopolous, who will be leading the famous trio of knuckleheads as their perennially cranky ringleader, Moe.

(image: David Shankbone)
Diamantopoulos began acting at the age of nine and never stopped. He has appeared in, among other things, two Broadways shows (Les Miserables, The Full Monty), three theatrical films (Wedding Daze, Three Days to Vegas, Under New Management) and dozens of television shows (Nip/Tuck, The Sopranos, Boston Legal, etc.,), where he's played everything from a no-nonsense presidential press secretary (24) to an over-the-top, Fernando Lama-esque restauranteur (Up All Night). However, it was Diamantopoulos's jaw-dropping star turn as Robin Williams in the 2005 biopic, Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Mork and Mindy', that showcased his astonishing talents. He channeled Williams so completely that some viewers forgot they were not watching the real Robin Williams. It's an extraordinary performance, that earned him Gemini and Prism Award nominations the following year. (He should've won an Emmy.)

(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)
IT ISN'T NECESSARY to be a serial killer to play one in the movies, but drama isn't nearly as difficult as comedy, and if one is playing a comical character, it's important to be funny. Many actors could have played Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), for example, but few "serious" actors would have brought Jim Carrey's lunatic brilliance to the role. That's because Jim Carrey is a funny guy. He knows what makes comedians tick because it's in his DNA.

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)
Of the three leading actors in the new Stooges film, Sean Hayes is likely the most widely recognized due to his Emmy and SAG Award-winning portrayal of Debra Messing and Eric McCormack's amusingly vain, flamboyantly gay friend, Jack McFarland, in the popular sitcom Will & Grace.

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)
IT TAKES GIANT, elephant-sized cojones to try and make the first original Three Stooges comedy in half a century. Make that whale-sized cojones. Any film that features characters as familiar as the Stooges is going to be difficult to pull off. The bar for a Stooges sequel is much higher than it would be for, say, Hangover 3 or Big Momma's House IV. The more famous and beloved the characters, the greater the expectations--and the greater the risk of disappointment. Which is why the new Stooges movie can't just be good, it's got to be great. With the Farrellys at the helm and actors the likes of Diamantopoulos, Sasso and Hayes, I suspect the material is in good hands.  

(Image: 20th Century Fox/C3 Entertainment)
There are people I know who are already bashing the movie, sight unseen, on the knee-jerk presumption that it can't possibly be as "good" as an original Stooges film, the irony of which is that most of the people who are saying that don't even like Stooges movies to begin with.

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.

Sean Penn photo by Rehes Creative
Paul Giamatti photo by Karen Liu 
Woody Harrelson photo by Steve Rogers
Justin Timberlake photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci
Larry David photo by David Shankbone


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