Leave it to a sibling comedy duo to recognize the potential for brotherly love amid the Three Stooges’ slap-happy antics, adding a welcome heartwarming dynamic to the gang’s signature eye-poking, head-knocking routine. In Fox’s “The Three Stooges,” co-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly tone down the abuse without compromising the numbskulls’ unique style of physical comedy, making for an unexpectedly pleasant yet unapologetically lowbrow outing true to the spirit that has made the trio such an enduring comedy fixture since its bigscreen debut in 1930. Brand recognition and warm word of mouth should win over wary parents for a midrange success.
Considering the blowback any time a surrogate stepped in to fill one of the original Stooges’ shoes (remember Shemp?), it couldn’t have been easy to find three actors capable of doing justice to the highly imitable but seldom matched mannerisms of Moe, Larry and Curly. Audiences already know longtime “Will & Grace” co-star Sean Hayes, whom a scowling expression and equally unflattering wig transforms into permanently befuddled Larry, and versatile “Mad TV” comic Will Sasso, whose closely shaved head becomes an all-purpose battering ram as Curly. The discovery here is Greek-Canadian Chris Diamantopoulos, who nails the fast-talking Moe’s cheeky New York accent (no small feat, considering that English is the thesp’s second language).
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As if to simulate a latenight marathon of “Three Stooges” shorts, the film is divided into three continuous episodes. The first, dubbed “More Orphan Than Not,” serves as a revisionist origin story for the trio, opening with their arrival, via duffel bag, on the front stoop of an orphanage operated by nuns. The sisters range in appearance and disposition from the beatific Sister Bernice (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton) to the draconian Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David in drag), with Jennifer Hudson thrown in for good measure as the quick-to-sing Sister Rosemary.
After a few “Little Rascals”-style scenes in which pint-sized moppets play the 10-year-old misfits, their ridiculous hairstyles and personalities already very much in place, the story jumps forward to find the now-adult Stooges still living under the nuns’ roof. But fortunes have changed in 35 years, and the orphanage is now saddled with heavy debts. Unless the three can raise $830,000 in a month’s time, they’ll be forced to fend for themselves, though escalating in-fighting suggests a rift among the brothers (the subject of the last two episodes, “The Bananas Split” and “No Moe Mister Nice Guy”).
Wherever they go, the Stooges can be relied upon to turn any environment — including a maternity ward packed with full-bladdered infants — into a dangerous playground for slapstick shenanigans. While the story may be stock and the laughs unsophisticated, it’s hard not to admire the convoluted mix of puns and mock pugilism that make up their routine, a throwback to the vaudeville tradition from which their act emerged back in the ’20s.
As with the Marx Brothers, the key to making the Stooges work is to surround them with straight men — humorless authority figures incapable of going about their business in the presence of such idiocy. As Mother Superior, Jane Lynch is a perfect example, denying her own considerable comic gifts to give the boys more room to shine. The instant the supporting cast starts to act funny, however, the dynamic shifts toward farce, as when a buxom gold-digger (Sofia Vergara) enlists the Stooges to murder her husband (Kirby Heyborne).
While best known for pushing the envelope on gross-out humor, co-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly are softies at heart, having quietly spent the past two decades shifting audience attitudes toward mentally and physically challenged characters onscreen (including actors with disabilities in “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” among others).
Whereas many who grew up watching “The Three Stooges” now wince at the thought of their mean-spirited antics, the Farrellys have the right attitude to make their buffoonery bearable. In early scenes among the nuns, the adolescent Stooges come across as precocious pranksters, but as adults, they are clearly stunted kids — a variation on the popular man-child trend.
And lest anyone think “The Three Stooges” reruns represent the lowest form of television programming, the Farrellys slyly enlist the cast members of “The Jersey Shore” to play themselves, allowing Moe to knock some sense into the reality-show wastrels. If some degree of schadenfreude is key to appreciating the Stooges’ abusive escapades, then watching Snooki and the Situation get slapped around goes a long way toward satisfying grownups, while sparing the need for racy double entendres and other tacky tricks.
Production values are pro, with timing — in choreography, editing and silly sound effects — consistently triggering the guffaws. An amusing coda, in which Antonio Sabato Jr. and Justin Lopez introduce themselves as the film’s directors and proceed to deliver a “don’t try this at home” message, puts the PG-rated violence in proper context.