Dumb, Dumberer, and Dumberest
In their new yuk-fest The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers deracinate a Jewish classic. But the brutish schtick got old a long time ago.
The movie is that, although somewhat downscaled in the absence of name talent. (The Stooges are played by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso, who does a credible Curly imitation.) The Three Stooges is also a recognizable Farrelly joint, replete with elaborately tasteless gags as when the Stooges wield newborn infants as weapons in a pissing contest or when a peanut lodged in a dolphin’s blow-hole is expelled with such force that it winds up in a lion’s keester and … Somehow they got Bob Dylan to lease them the first few lines of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” (Was he a Stooges fan, too?) There are even a few political digs. A villainous bimbo is shown in bed reading The Weekly Standard (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk), and the Stooge mayhem occasions a plug for universal health care. A closing disclaimer, supposedly featuring the filmmakers themselves, warns against eye pokes, but the movie’s most radical idea is that the contemporary equivalent of the Stooges is the reality TV show Jersey Shore. (Imagine a super-simulation of that.)
Not that I much care but the Farrelly film isn’t a desecration. (That would be the Woody Allen story “This Nib For Hire,” which turns the Stooges into Beckett characters: “Calmly and for no apparent reason the dark-haired man took the nose of the bald man in his right hand and slowly twisted it in a long counterclockwise circle.”) Rather, The Three Stooges is what son-of-Brooklyn Curly might have called a “con-voy-shun.” The Stooge impersonators are no more witless than the originals but they are different.
As reconfigured by the Farrellys (and part of their concept from the script’s first draft), Curly, Larry, and Moe are the products of a Catholic orphanage and, to the degree that the movie has a narrative, it concerns their good-hearted, knuckle-headed, amply violent attempts to save the institution from being sold. In his recently published The New Jew in Film, Nathan Abrams ascribes specifically Jewish content to the Farrellys’ 1998 classic There’s Something About Mary in the grotesque schlemielishness of Ben Stiller zippering a bit of his scrotum. But the Farrelly Stooges are positively not Jewish—although there is a vestigial trace. The meanest nun in the orphanage, Sister Mary Mengele [sic], is played in drag by Larry David (the Farrellys’ original choice for Larry) as a de facto fourth Stooge.
So, are these universalized or at least deracinated Stooges a liberation? Not entirely.
I couldn’t at age 10 but I now embrace my inner Stoogishness. The guys may not make me laugh but I do feel a connection. Angry Moe suggests a tyrannical, frustrated immigrant father; the spectacle of dysfunctional brothers squabbling their way through one failed enterprise after another is a nightmare of non-adaptation. Moreover, their shorts do shout out with gratuitous snatches of Yiddish. The best-known occurs in Mutts to You (1938) where Larry, supposedly speaking Chinese, tells a cop to bug off in fluent, idiomatic Yinglish: “Hak mir nisht ayn tshaynik [don’t rattle my tea-pot] and I don’t mean efsha [maybe]!” And, no efsha about it, the Stooges did make a prematurely anti-fascist movie, albeit one so lowbrow as to have escaped the scrutiny of the 1941 Senate hearings that investigated Hollywood for its supposedly war-mongering anti-German movie propaganda.
This notable achievement is You Nazty Spy! in which, wearing an oversized military great coat and combing his hair to one side of his forehead, Moe plays the dictator of Moronika with Curly and Larry his Field Marshal and Minister of Propaganda. The movie was released in January 1940, nine months in advance of Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Additionally striking are the ways in which the Stooges foreground themselves as Jews, shouting “Sholom Aleichem” in unison in their first scene, expressing an irrational love of blintzes and sour cream in another. The sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1941) is borderline blasphemous including “Yom Kippers” as a country that Moronika plans to conquer.
Mike Gold wrote Jews Without Money; the Stooges are Jews Who Aren’t Funny. Most of their jobs are menial, and there’s a poignant quality to their gross travesties of respected “Jewish” roles (doctors, movie moguls, comics). In 1949, the same year that the Stooges appeared in Vagabond Loafers, Harold Rosenberg published an essay called “The Pathos of the Proletariat.” The Stooges embody another pathos—that of the half-Americanized, lumpen proletariat prosteh yid. Stunted, exploited, self-brutalized, they enact and reenact and re-reenact the trauma of those wretched refuseniks who never recovered from steerage. Taken as a single, monstrous 174-part movie, you could say that’s the Jewish epic that they made.
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