Let’s face it — nobody was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of “The Three Stooges.” For purists and fans of the original short films, nobody could step into the shoes (and on the toes) of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard. And anyone who never liked the Stooges in the first place certainly didn’t have any interest in seeing a 21st-century version of the slapstick-y physical comedians.
Get ready for something more shocking than a poke in the eye: “The Three Stooges” is genuinely funny, a no-holds-barred, smart-stupid comedy that (at the screening I attended, anyway) will win over Stooge-philes and non-believers alike.
Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly (who co-wrote with frequent collaborator Mike Cerrone) have talked about a Stooges reboot for years, but re-enacting legendary comedy bits with new performers is no easy task; just check out the truly bizarre 1992 comedy “Brain Donors,” in which John Turturro attempts to channel Groucho in an unofficial remake of the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.”
With “Stooges,” however, the Farrellys get the tone just right, mixing classic tropes (ladder gags, the disruption of fancy society parties, a French pastry chef lamenting the destruction of his multi-tiered cake) with contemporary gags that seem like they wouldn’t work but somehow do. As it turns out, watching the cast of “Jersey Shore” get hit in the head repeatedly is both amusing and oddly cathartic.
The film begins with three infants in a duffel bag getting heaved onto the front porch of an orphanage run by the kindly Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), with Sister Mary Mengele (Larry David) as the house’s no-nonsense taskmaster. After an accident-fraught childhood, the trio of foundlings grows up to be Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso), who inflict as much damage upon each other as they do to their surroundings.
When the orphanage faces foreclosure, in true “Blues Brothers” style, the trio sets out into the big, bad world to raise the money to save the place. But once they leave the confines of the orphanage, they find themselves caught up in a devious wife’s murder scheme and in the even scarier world of reality television.
This is silly business, obviously, which requires a certain amount of surrender on the part of the audience. No matter how many of the laughs stem from people being bopped on the bean or having their noggins slammed together, however, there’s a lot of structure propping up all the wackiness. The script assembles a wonderfully intricate series of setups and payoffs, perhaps the most in any movie since the equally dopey yet thoroughly underrated “Rat Race” a decade ago.
Sad orphans, a three-act structure, those damn “Jersey Shore” kids — these things should all be antithetical to a Three Stooges comedy, but the Farrellys consistently find the laughs in a movie that puts them back on the level of “There’s Something About Mary” after a parade of disappointments like “Hall Pass” and their remake of “The Heartbreak Kid.”
It’s no picnic for an actor to step into an iconic role, but Diamantopoulos, Sasso and especially Hayes really shine here — they’re talented mimics, to be sure, but they also understand the timing and the personalities of the original Stooges. The new characters are lots of fun as well, from David’s grouchy nun to Craig Bierko’s hapless adulterer to Sofia Vergara, taking the sight-gag value of her va-va-voomery to its logical conclusion. She’s practically the Jayne Mansfield of the modern age.
There’s a strong chance you’ve already made up your mind that you wouldn’t go see “The Three Stooges” on a bet — it wouldn’t have been high on my list if this weren’t my job — but seriously, throw caution to the wind on this one. It’s funnier than a hammer to the skull.