“The Three Stooges” get reverent treatment in this ABC Original from a bulging bevy of executive producers, Mel Gibson among them, which immediately brings to mind the cliche about having too many cooks in the kitchen. No doubt, every one of them had some grand ideas about what needed to be said regarding the giants of slapstick — from their relationship to the personal tragedies to their financial travails. To its credit, the film does cover a lot for a two-hour telepic. But it also chooses information over insight, exegesis over drama, never making a case along the way for what made the Stooges such a lasting phenomenon. The final dish in this crowded kitchen has lots of quality ingredients, but almost no flavor.
Biopics like this one have developed their own paint-by-numbers structure: in order to hit the biggest beats, the narratives are almost always told in flashback. In this case, the point of reference is 1959 — a young exec from Boston, Tom Cosgrove (Joel Edgerton), tries to persuade an aging and extremely reluctant Moe Howard (Paul Ben-Victor) to reunite the surviving Stooges to coincide with the Three Stooges’ shorts TV premiere. It’s an intelligent choice for a narrative frame, capturing a moment when the Three Stooges seemed destined to fade into oblivion, their multitude of short films forgotten amid the dawning dominance of television.
The film then flashes back to the days of vaudeville, where we see the rise of three Jewish comics from a back-up act to lowbrow film headliners.
Director James Frawley, cinematographer Rob Draper and production designer Larry Eastwood do a solid job capturing the carnival atmosphere of 1920s vaudeville roadshows. Moe, brother Shemp and Larry Fine travel the circuit with domineering headliner Ted Healy. They move to Hollywood in 1930, and 20th Century Fox offers them their own deal. But when Healy gets wind of the offer, he quickly scuttles it.
There’s not a lot of time for subtlety in the characterizations. Moe is the steady leader, Larry (Evan Handler) is a spendthrift with a wandering eye for the ladies and Shemp (John Kassir) is a worrywart whose anxiety becomes so severe that he drops out. In 1933, Moe replaces him with younger brother Jerry (Michael Chiklis), aka Babe, who quickly brings life to the act and, due to a spirited perf from Michael Chiklis, to the made-for. When Babe gets his head shaved and takes on the name “Curly,” the Three Stooges proper are born.
Under Harry Cohn (Linal Haft), the Stooges become Columbia Pictures’ blue-plate special — working stiffs who thumb their noses at the hoi polloi.
In the mid-1940s, the insecure Curly has a stroke while filming “Halfwit’s Holiday.” In a deeply overwrought scene, Chiklis gets to bawl when the semi-paralyzed Curly is given a release letter from his brother Moe. Shemp returns to the act, battling the shakes right up until his death in 1955. There’s a brief flirtation with Joe Besser as the third man, who’s quickly replaced with the more willing Joe DeRita. When Harry Cohn dies in 1958, the Stooges find they’re not even allowed onto the lot.
Whew. So much to cover. And yet the highly efficient screenplay — based on the book by Daily Variety reporter Michael Fleming — from Kirk Ellis and Janet Roach seems oddly story-less. Everything here feels sketched out in broad strokes, including the performances. Pic is all facts and dates, so that the only things that matter, who these guys were and why people find their work so funny, get lost in the exposition.
Of the ensemble, Handler’s the most effective, at least endowing Larry with a dry wit along with the red hair. He’s the only actor who seems at home with the comedy.
Frawley throws in some flashes of style here and there, capturing the spirit of the Stooges in small bits of interaction, and the film always looks good.