Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Bradley Cooper in ‘The Hangover III’/Image © Warner Bros
The great (and recently departed) Roger Ebert once compiled a glossary of terms he’d coined to highlight the most prevalent clichés that exist in movies and films. It included such gems as “Backseat Inviso-Syndrome” (defined as when “film characters are invariably unable to see a person crouched in the backseat of a car”) and the “Turtle Effect” (which dictates that “once a character is knocked down, they just lie there as if unable to get up”), but a favorite of most movie lovers is Ebert’s skewering definition of the classic trope involving movie duos — “the Odd Couple Formula,” which is defined as “seemingly incompatible characters are linked to each other in a plot that depends on their differences for its comic and dramatic interest.”
The solution to such a tired and overused cinema principle? Add another character and make it a trio. Maybe it’s something to do with group dynamic; maybe it’s because the increase in interaction allows for characters to showcase more depth; or maybe it has something to do with the fact that seeing the same back and forth between the same two people for ninety minutes can get boring. Whatever the specific reason, it’s pretty obvious that focusing on three characters works great when telling a story on screen. And this weekend, one of the most recent (and famous) film trios, the wolf pack from “The Hangover” and “The Hangover Part II,” will join once more for comedy hijinks in “The Hangover Part III.”
In honor of the occasion, we’re taking a look at the best trios to have graced the silver screen. Here are the ten best we came up.
Brody, Hooper, and Quint from “Jaws” (1975)
“Jaws” can be used in pretty much any film theory argument. The movie’s symbolism packs nearly every scene and gives cinephiles mountains of instances to cite. And while many remember the thriller, based on the bestselling novel of the same name, that made audiences afraid of the ocean for its ominous music and imagery of a distressed swimmer slipping beneath the water, the heart of the movie, as well as nearly half the story, focuses on three guys on a boat. As Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss hunt a great white shark, their character clashes of old working-class sailor, young tech-savvy ocean scientist, and dedicated lawman with no experience on the water is enthralling as it leads to the climactic showdown. It also fuels the most copied scene of scar comparing in movie history.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron from the “Harry Potter” series (2001-2011)
Let’s all just step back and take in the achievement of the “Harry Potter” movies. For a decade (A DECADE!), we watched a cast of child actors grow up and mature along with their roles in eight (EIGHT!) films. Sure, it was a large and varied group of actors playing everything from major side characters (Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy), to minor/almost background actors (Devon Michael Murray as Seamus Finnigan), but the core of the films, as in the books, rested on the relationship between three best friends played by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Throughout the overarching story, as in each film’s own episodic tale, the three demonstrate the epitome of friendship and overcoming unimaginable adversity (it is film series about wizards and witches), while leading audiences on a cinematic journey unlike any other … watching them grow up.
Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie from “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)
Our only all-female trio on the list and it’s a classic. Okay, maybe we’re using that word a little too loosely, but the witches, comprised of Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer, are pretty awesome. Based on the John Updike novel of the same name, the threesome of modern put-upon women learn of their inherent magical abilities after they realize they’d inadvertently formed a coven and summoned the Devil (Jack Nicholson). The ensuing polyamorous relationship and falling out/conflict results in all three discovering their inner strength. Unfortunately, the film never received the same status as feminist satire like the book (probably the result of a weak third act and film-stealing Nicholson), but it did result in the deadliest cherry eating/spell casting scene every filmed.
Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy from “Goodfellas” (1990)
Gangsters make great film subjects. Don’t believe us? Watch the first two “Godfather” movies or 3/8 of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. The most celebrated/infamous is of course, “Goodfellas.” Based on the true-crime book Wiseguy, the film depicts actual events witnessed by mafia informant Henry Hill throughout the sixties and seventies in Brooklyn. Practically from the movie’s opening scene of three Mafiosos driving late at night with a (almost) dead body in the trunk, viewers understand the workings of the group — Joe Pesci’s psychotic killer Tommy, Robert De Niro’s courteous (yet dangerous) thief Jimmy, and Ray Liotta as the (somewhat) passive Henry witnessing it all.
Dr. Grant, Lex, and Tim from “Jurassic Park” (1993)
Have you ever noticed Steven Spielberg’s thing about fathers in his movies? The missing dad in “E.T.”, the grieving father storyline in “Minority Report,” the schism between Indiana Jones and his father in “Last Crusade,” and so much more. A great example of this is the subplot of paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his aversion toward kids. If you were only a kid yourself the last time you saw the film, then you probably didn’t notice because of the dinosaurs. Basically, Grant hates children and it’s implied that he’s reluctant to settle down and become a father with his partner, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Fortunately for him, the disaster of cloned dinosaurs breaking loose strands Grant with brother and sister Lex and Tim Murphy (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) in the dangerous, yet awe-inspiring, theme park though which he must guide them to safety — thus changing his opinion of children and convincing him to be a dad. The journey, which takes up only a fraction of the novel by Michael Crichton, is a good chunk of the movie’s plot and adds some depth to what would probably have been written off as a prehistoric disaster flick.
Moe, Larry, and Curly ”The Three Stooges” (1934-1947)
Come one?! You didn’t see this one coming as soon you read that we were looking at on-screen trios? The Stooges are a given! But which “Three Stooges” are we talking about? What started as a vaudeville act went through many many incarnations (if you ever want to lose an hour of your life, ask a hard-core Stooge fan about “the return of Shemp”). The ultimate “Three Stooges” manifestation (and the one most people think of when they hear “Three Stooges”) consists of Moe, Larry, and Curly, which began when the group first broke out on their own at Columbia Picture in 1934 and lasted until Jerry “Curly” Howard suffered a career-ending stroke in 1947. Throughout that time the trio made 190 short films (the group's ideal medium) and five feature films, all of which are considered the seminal “three stooges” catalogue. The group went through an assortment of rosters and variations, but Moe, Larry, Curly will always be “The Three Stooges.”
Don, Kathy, and Cosmo from “Singing in the Rain” (1952)
Considered the quintessential Hollywood musical, “Singin’ in the Rain” remains a classic to this day. The film came about when MGM went looking to use a catalogue of outdated songs they still owned, and the filmmakers (led by director and star Gene Kelly) hit upon the genius idea of setting the film almost thirty years in the past during an important period of Hollywood history, when movies went from silent films to sound. The plot of famed silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly), humbled by the addition of sound, finding romance and inspiration in chorus girl Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) seems like a given, but it’s the addition of best friend and sidekick Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) that completes the movie.
The Dude, Walter, and Donny from “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Without a doubt, the one cinematic bowling team that everyone would want to roll with includes the bowlers of Jeff Bridges’ laid back Dude, John Goodman’s excitably irritable Walter Sobchak, and Steve Buscemi’s timid Donny Kerabatsos. The team doesn’t get much time knocking down pins on screen, at least not without some gunplay, but the three managed to experience a lot together outside of the bowling alley in this odd, dark, and hilarious take on Raymond Chandler mysteries by the Coen brothers.
Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa from “The Lion King” (1994)
Everyone needs best friends. They accept you for who you are and don’t judge you for your social status or family history (true best friends, at least). And more importantly, they help you when you need it, even if it means breaking their easygoing philosophy. Case in point: the two best buddies of Simba (first voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas then later Mathew Broderick), meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). The two animated animal versions of minor Shakespeare characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover the young lion prince near death in the desert after escaping his uncle’s coup d'état of the pride. They take him in and teach him their happy-go-lucky philosophy of "hakuna matata," which the three follow for years. Then, when Simba realizes he must rejoin his pride and save his kingdom from his usurper uncle, Timon and Pumbaa come along to help, proving that friendship is more important than carefree living.
Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966)
It can be a little confusing when trying to figure where Director Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” fits in Leone’s celebrated “Dollars Trilogy.” The fact that many film buffs believe the movie (which is the last in the trilogy) is actually a prequel and thus takes places first in the trilogy’s chronology doesn’t help (not to mention that Lee Van Cleef, who played good guy Colonel Douglas Mortimer in the trilogy’s second film, “For Few Dollars More,” is now cast as villain Angel Eyes). The film plot is pretty straightforward: three gunfighters, one good (Clint Eastwood’s Blondie/Man with no name), one bad (the already mentioned Angel Eyes), and one ugly (Eli Wallach’s Tuco), race against each other to find a hidden fortune of Confederate gold during the waning days of the Civil War. The climatic Mexican standoff between all three is a clever twist on the western genre cliché of a showdown at high noon and a cinematic classic.
What say you, readers? Did we overlook or miss any of your favorite cinematic threesomes? Let us know in the comments.