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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 19, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Three Stooges, Bad Movies

I'm so old they were still making new Three Stooges shows when I was in my teens. I remember, as a pre-teen, arguing the merits of Shemp vs. Curly as the third Stooge.

We tried out all the moves, trying to figure out how they could seem to jab each other in the eyes without actually doing it.

But I grew out of my delight in the Three Stooges. I remembered thinking they were hilarious, but they weren't funny anymore. I felt nostalgia for the child I was when I was naive and uncompassionate enough to find their constant raw brutality amusing.

As an adult, trained in theatre, I began to understand how everything in their shows depended on timing and attitude. It's not just what they did, but when they did it and their attitude as they did.

And that's something they mostly got right in the new Three Stooges tribute movie. Their cruel violence was not done cruelly -- but it isn't casual, either. They're irritated or alarmed and lash out; but their blows and jabs seem not to do any serious or lasting harm.

No one emerges from an encounter with the Stooges permanently blinded; nobody dies or suffers crippling brain damage. And the Stooges know it as they make their moves. The whole thing is good-natured. It's all pranks and stunts, and the characters know it.

The only thing that the Farrelly brothers missed, in their directing of The Three Stooges, was the overall pace of the comedy.

That is, within each scene, their timing is superb. But the overall pace of the movie, the speed with which they move forward in the story, is, unsurprisingly, more like a Farrelly brothers than a Three Stooges film.

And that's all right. Comedy is very hard. The Farrelly brothers' success rate, for me, is about twenty-five percent. Appallingly bad films like Shallow Hal and Me, Myself, and Irene alternate with inspired brilliance like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary.

Oh, wait. Most of the Farrelly Brothers films I like come from early in their careers, and then we get the ones that are all crude joke, no brain, no heart.

Compare the Farrelly Brothers with the Coen Brothers, and you realize that where the Coens have a clear vision of the kind of story they want to tell, when they're making a comedy (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the Farrellys seem to flail about a little.

The Farrelly brothers comedies reveal their origin in the room where writers are saying, "We could do this! We could do that!" as they crack each other up with the outrageousness of their ideas. Story and character barely exist; it's a sketch comic's approach.

With the Coens, the gags emerge in the process of the story; with the Farrellys, the movies are often strung gag-to-gag, and "gag" is the operative word. We haven't seen a movie show male genitalia caught in a zipper? We'll do it!

The Farrellys began the move toward gross-out farce; the Coens have opted for cleverness, originality, wit, heart.

So the real surprise with The Three Stooges is that the Farrellys are so true to the spirit of the original, and that they manage to tell something like a story with something like heart.

In many ways The Three Stooges is the Farrellys best movie to date.

The Three Stooges is very well cast. Will Sasso is Curly -- one has a feeling that he has been doing Curly impressions at parties for decades.

Sean Hayes brings his good-natured persona from Will and Grace to the part of Larry, but that's exactly right -- Larry was always the sweet, rather bewildered one (though when it came to eye-jabbing, he held his own).

Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe is not quite so spot on, but by the end, I realized that he isn't doing an imitation, he's playing a character.

The Moe of this movie is actually quite different from the dictatorial Moe of the original stooges; the Farrellys (or perhaps it was the other writer on the project, Mike Cerrone) seemed to understand that the original Moe was too hateful to carry a good movie.

When you mean to sit still for two hours in the dark to watch a story unfold, you want to spend that time with likeable characters. The original Moe could only be enjoyed from an emotional distance. In a way, he's the heavy -- we love Larry and Curly mostly because they have to put up with and depend on Moe, who is so abusive to them.

The Three Stooges makes Moe mean well, and that's the character that Diamantopolous plays. It makes his performance seem weak at first -- where's the driving energy of the "real" Moe? But by the end, his kinder, if not gentler, Moe is the reason we like the movie so much.

Jane Lynch is a delight as the Mother Superior. Lynch is a real actor -- she knows how to scale back her comedy to fit the role. Unlike, say, Betty White, who is a parody of a human being in all her parts, wrecking large swathes of her most recent movies, Lynch can do an over-the-top mugging role like Sue Sylvester in Glee, but then remain within the bounds of reality, providing something like an anchor to The Three Stooges.

Larry David is a comedian that I have never found even slightly amusing. I have always switched away from his long-running series Curb Your Enthusiasm as instantly as I switch away from a Rod Stewart song on XM-Sirius.

So I was pleased to see that he does a fine job crossing genders as the Mean Nun (Sister Mary-Mengele) who always hated the Stooges, and paid dearly for it.

But the best of the supporting cast is Kirby Heyborne as the childhood friend who got out of the orphanage but now is in jeopardy and needs the Stooges to save him.

I must admit a personal connection to Heyborne -- I directed him in a one-act play in Los Angeles a few years ago, and I've been following his work closely since I saw his brilliant performance as the English airman in Saints and Soldiers back in 2003.

Heyborne is a gifted comedian, in the most difficult kind of role: the "straight man." The straight man is the low-key, believable person who stands in for the audience, reacting to the behavior of the madcap comics with bewildered good manners, trying to make their madness make sense.

Think of George Burns with Gracie Allen, Woody Allen in his funny days, Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick Van Dyke Show and her own self-titled series, Josh Radnor as Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, and Topher Grace in That '70s Show.

These actors rarely do "antics." Instead, they do "takes." They provide a core of reality. And that's what Kirby Heyborne does, superbly, once he enters the storyline of The Three Stooges.

I'm glad to see that he has been well-used in this movie, and I hope other directors realize how well he does this most difficult job.

(And Heyborne also does a superb job of narrating the audio production of Anne Tyler's latest novel, The Beginner's Good-bye and Ken Jennings's Maphead, and as one of the readers on some of my most recent novels, Shadows in Flight, Pathfinder, and Ender in Exile -- among a hundred titles he's done over the years.)

As usual with movies that move across time, the child-actor cast will get very little notice. As with Forrest Gump and My Left Foot, the adult actors profit from the fine performances of the children.

This is natural, because we register the performances of both actors -- the child and the adult -- as playing a single character, but it's the adult we see last. So all our feelings toward the character, all the warmth built up by a brilliant child's performance, will redound to the credit of the actor who finishes the role.

It takes nothing from Tom Hanks's wonderful performance in Forrest Gump, for instance, to point out that his best-actor Oscar was at least half-earned by Michael Conner Humphreys as Young Forrest, and Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar for My Left Foot was ninety percent earned by Hugh O'Conor, as young Christy Brown.

(Not that Day-Lewis didn't do a good job; on the contrary. But the adult Christy Brown was written to be astonishingly unlikeable; what made the movie watchable was the memory of the struggle and triumph of Hugh O'Conor's performance at the beginning of the movie, which remained at the root of the audience's response to Day-Lewis's performance.)

So in The Three Stooges, let's not overlook the wonderful, likeable work of Lance Chantiles-Wertz as Young Larry, Robert Capron as Young Curly, and the heartbreakingly fine performance of Skyler Gisondo as Young Moe. (We'll see Gisondo again in The Amazing Spider-Man later this year, but I have no idea how large the part of "Howard Stacy" is going to be.)

Is The Three Stooges the best movie of the year? Not a chance. But is it worth seeing in the theater? Absolutely.

My wife and I happened to see it on a Monday night, so there was only one other couple in the theater. Comedy does not thrive in near-empty houses, yet when I polled the entire audience after the film, the consensus was that we all enjoyed it.

In a more crowded room, the chuckles would have been laughs, and the outloud laughs would have been gales of laughter, maybe even applause.

So see it on a weekend night, and bring friends.

*

The other night on HBO I happened to watch a train-wreck of a movie called Your Highness.

It's a good contrast with The Three Stooges, if only to show how fragile a thing comedy is, and how even when you take great pains to do everything right, and scene after scene is actually very good, you can still end up with something amazingly awful.

Start with the cast. Your Highness had James Franco, who is brilliant even when he's in a soul-killing role like this one; Natalie Portman (arguably the best thing in this bad movie), Zooey Deschanel (completely wasted but cute anyway), and Danny McBride.

Danny McBride? Who? Well, see, he wrote the film, and then played the lead.

That worked out very well for Sylvester Stallone in Rocky -- but Stallone had some serious help in script revision before the film was shot.

But it would be wrong to blame McBride for Your Highness. Because the script is not even bad. Scene after scene is really funny. And McBride's performance is spot on. The trouble is that McBride is a sidekick actor, and this is a sidekick performance -- yet the character of Thadeous has to carry the movie.

McBride simply can't hold the screen with James Franco and Natalie Portman. He's a good, honest actor, but it's almost impossible to get your head around the idea that the story is about his character.

If this part had been played by Jake Black, I think it could have been a hit.

I wish I understood what the star-power thing is all about. Because McBride is a very good actor. He's very funny. He just doesn't come alive and own the screen the way James Franco does. And so the constant contrast between them shatters McBride in scene after scene. We keep expecting the movie to be about Franco, and it isn't.

Ditto with Natalie Portman when she comes into the story. She's simply got it. It's not that she's pretty -- few leading actresses are actually pretty. She simply owns your eyes when she's on the screen, and McBride becomes a secondary character.

The result is a shattering failure. On a budget of nearly fifty million dollars, Your Highness grossed less than half that -- worldwide.

Yet the film looks great. Wonderful sets. And the story is actually a pretty good magical fantasy. There's nothing really wrong with the script.

Now, in Hollywood there are plenty of horror stories that show you exactly why good ideas, good stories, even good scripts get turned into horrible movies -- or never get made at all.

(A casebook on the subject is Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes. Read it and weep. I know from personal experience just how true this book is, how representative of the ordinary working of the filmmaking business.)

The thing is, none of the awful things that can happen to a movie happened to this one. Everybody did everything right, or pretty close. Good movies -- even excellent ones -- have been made from worse material than this.

So even when you don't have executives coming in and making insane decisions, or directors who take over a project and wreck it with their "creative vision," or a series of writers who repeatedly throw out everything that worked in previous drafts, or other common horror stories -- a movie can still fail.

It's like what happened when Marty Feldman, who was so brilliant as sidekick Igor in Young Frankenstein, was put in the lead in The Last Remake of Beau Geste -- with a script he wrote himself. It should have worked. But Feldman, superb as he was, could not carry a movie. Who knows why?

Your Highness flopped hugely, despite all the things it had going for it, because Danny McBride doesn't have (or doesn't yet have) whatever it is that makes audiences stay riveted on a performer.

And that magic quality may not be a positive thing -- it might be a kind of manic self-absorption that makes so many leading actors impossible to live with or work with in real life. It might be utter madness that gives their eyes, their faces, their voices the ability to capture and dominate us when we watch them on the screen.

But maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe the problem is a neither-fish-nor-fowl problem inherent in the script -- that the script never quite committed to being either a comic send-up of the film fantasy genre or a serious fantasy film with comic moments in it.

It tried to do both, and therefore failed at both. Maybe that's it.

But remember, when you watch a really bad movie, that some of them are bad in a mind-numbing way -- how did this obvious trash ever get made? -- and some of them are bad in a disappointing way -- why isn't this good, when so many bits of it seem to work?

That's what movie channels are for -- to give us a chance to watch and try to understand films that we never paid -- nor ever would pay -- money for in theaters or even in the DVD section of Target.

So I won't even go into Horrible Bosses, the other movie I watched at (I can't claim to have really watched it, since it kept repelling me with the utter stupidity and falseness of the script) the same night as Your Highness.

Horrible Bosses is a demonstration of the fact that no matter how well first-rate actors do their jobs, you can't save an awful script. Comedy has to have some kind of human truth to it, or it will fail.

But somebody thought the script of Horrible Bosses was ready to shoot.

And here's the irony: Horrible Bosses made a lot of money. It didn't fail. It just sucked.


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