Both sincerely affectionate and a tad eerie, the Farrelly brothers’ The Three Stooges wonders what it’d be like to arm the most violent comedians of the 20th century with their familiar implements of comic torture against a modern-day setting, where sadistic slapstick has become as common as an unfunny Hangover sequel.
This retro exercise has been a long time coming. For a while the Farrellys—best known for There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber—attracted the interest of various A-listers, including Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Benicio Del Toro.
The trio they ended up with lacks star wattage, but it’s very solid. Will Sasso’s Curly hews closely to the Curly we know in the nyuk-nyuk and woo-woo-woo-woo-woo! department. Chris Diamantopoulos has a leaner face than Moe Howard’s, but he gets the boiling-point grimace down pat. (The bowl cut doesn’t hurt.) Top-billed Sean Hayes, from TV’s Will & Grace, scores an improbable triumph as Larry, his adenoidally weary vocal inflections right on the money.
So that’s a start. But absurdly brutal slapstick is a tough thing to sustain across a feature. I spent a lot of The Three Stooges staring, not laughing. For me this was a stare-out-loud affair. The script by the Farrellys and Mike Cerrone tosses the infant Stooges at the doorstep of an orphanage, where Jane Lynch plays the kindly Mother Superior and Larry David, in wimple drag, plays the mean nun just waiting to get clocked and bonked and banged around. The orphanage is threatened with foreclosure; to raise the $830,000, the boys bravely venture out into the real, adult world for the first time.
What is that gadget?” one of the Stooges asks. “It’s an iPhone,” comes the answer, and in one of the better jokes, Curly sticks his eye up to it and bellows, “Hello? Hello?”
Aptly, The Three Stooges tells its story in three parts, as separate short films adding up to a feature. Less aptly, the pathos involving a mortally ill child at the orphanage and the Stooges’ underlying love for one another can get pretty brutal. The sentimentality often feels at odds with the protracted, unevenly executed set pieces relying on wrench-conks and hot irons to the chest.
Also, the anachronisms chafe. While it certainly (or soitenly) fills time to have Moe become a cast member of Jersey Shore and yank the nose hairs out of one cast member while giving Snooki the eye-poke, it’s kind of: Huh? Wha? Even with its drab and generic visual quality, the film has its moments—there’s a genuinely funny visual joke involving farm-raised salmon, for example—but to really dig the Farrellys’ tribute to the Stooges, you have to be more of a fan of the old stuff than I am.
Remember Brain Donors from 1992? It was an attempt, valiant but limited, to recapture the magic and the dynamic of the Marx Brothers, with John Turturro more or less “doing” Groucho. The Three Stooges amounts to the same sort of cover-band project.
The Three Stooges (PG) ★★☆☆☆