All things considered, "The Three Stooges" is a few sawed-off ladder steps better than the alternative of sheer, brain-numbing misery. Directed by the recently down-on-their-luck team of Bobby and Peter Farrelly (2011's "Hall Pass
") and co-written by Mike Cerrone (who last collaborated with the Farrellys on 2000's "Me, Myself & Irene
"), this distaff big-screen adaptation about a trio of bumbling fools made famous in 1930s and '40s television-syndicated slapstick shorts will not likely revive the brand so much as it will serve to remind those audience members familiar with Moe, Larry and Curly why they probably should have remained a nostalgic memory of the past. Frequently tone-deaf and at times painfully, if bloodlessly, violent, the film nevertheless squeaks by with a fleet pace and a handful of laughs that tellingly derive from absurd situations and dialogue zingers rather than any of the countless tired physical gags. Who "The Three Stooges" was made for is another matter. Too immature for adults and too dark and grisly for younger kids, it seems like the narrow window of boys ages 10-12 may be its only eager audience.
The slim excuse for a plot is separated into three roughly thirty-minute episodes with a single running narrative throughout. In the first, three bundles of mischief are dropped off on the doorstep of a nun-ran orphanage. Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) wastes not a minute welcoming them in, not realizing that the hair-brained and klutzy Moe (Chis Diamantopoulos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) will be stuck with them for good. Sure, Moe had a chance to be adopted years ago, when he was ten, but he refused to be separated from his two best friends. Now thirty-five, they work as handymen at the orphanage in exchange for a place to live. It's home to them, and when it is threatened to be closed down unless $830,000 can be collected, Moe, Larry and Curly set off for the big city in hopes of finding the money. In the second episode, their prayers seem to be answered when the gold-digging Lydia (Sofia Vergara) and her scheming lover Mac (Craig Bierko) know idiots when they see idiots and promptly hire the guys to do away with her husband for that exact amount of cash. Naturally, things do not go as planned. Finally, in the last segment, Moe becomes estranged with Larry and Curly after a falling-out and finds himself the newest cast member on "Jersey Shore." It just might be the shot at fame and fortune that could save the orphanage, but first he'll have to make up with Larry and Curly and stop Lydia and Mac from going through with their devious plan to kill hubby Teddy (Kirby Heyborne) on the day of her anniversary party.
The theatrical trailers for "The Three Stooges" inspired distinct feelings of hopelessness and doomnot exactly the emotions a studio should be going for when they're trying to sell a lightweight comedy. Thus, by the very nature that the finished product proper elicits some titters and smiles are just about all anyone could ask for. The bread-and-butter of these title characters, going all the way back to their start as vaudevillian acts nearly ninety years ago, is their fondness for each other even in the face of their rampant abusive tendencies. Viewed as pure farce, a hammer to the head, fingers to the eyeballs, and slaps across the face come with over-the-top cartoonish sound effects that reassure audiences it's all in good fun. If it weren't, Moe's, Larry's and Curly's behavior would lead undoubtedly to death and this filmrated PG by the skin of its teethwould more accurately resemble a ghastly, gory slasher movie. As in the Stooges' old shorts, Bobby and Peter Farrelly ensure that the violence does not result in blood and entrails, even when, in one particularly appalling moment, Moe chainsaws Curly in the middle of the forehead, bunking up his whirring blade. You read that right. Almost none of the bashes to the head and various other pratfalls will be amusing for anyone old enough to drive. They aren't even as inspired as Kevin McAllister's booby-trapped revenge against burglars Harry and Marv in 1990's "Home Alone."
Thankfully, there is good-natured energy to spare in spite of the picture's more troubling elements. Virtual unknown Chris Diamantopoulous, Sean Hayes (2008's "Soul Men
"), and Will Sasso (2010's "Life as We Know It
")as well as child counterparts Skyler Gisondo (2007's "Halloween
"), newcomer Lance Chantiles-Wertz, and Robert Capron (2011's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
")have perfected the looks and mannerisms of the original Moe, Larry and Curly right down to the most subtle of actions and facial expressions. Their work, thankless as it may ultimately be, is uncanny. That they manage to form a genuine bond between the three of them is equally unexpected since you'd think the sight of them hurting each other for ninety minutes would put a damper on the way their relationship is perceived. Amidst the overall loopy tone and inconsequence are a few earned laughs, from the inadvertent near-freak-death of Mac by way of trucks, electronic street sweepers, and rampant arrows to an extended romp in a hospital that finds Curly dressing like a va-va-va-voom
ish nurse. A dig at the Kardashians is too current to have much staying power, but still provokes a snicker, while many viewers will probably get off on seeing Moe, Larry and Curly torture the real-life cast of "Jersey Shore" in a variety of ways. Oh, and one of the film's more humorous moments might be completely unintended, as the nuns at the orphanage (played by, among others, the wasted Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, and a gender-crossing Larry David) never seem to age even as the story spans thirty-five years.
There are stretches of "The Three Stooges" that are total dead zones of comedy, and then, just when the instinct is to give up, something surprisingly quick and acerbic will come along to reclaim hope. This happens throughout, carrying viewers over an hour-and-a-half running time that feels shorter than that despite wearing out its welcome in the third episode. Let's make one thing clear: "The Three Stooges" is not successful. It's juvenile, it's sophomoric, and in scenes such as one involving urinating babies, it's gross and creepy. Actors far better than the material are squandered in supporting roles, while lesser-known ones, such as Emy Coligado (2005's "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
") as cutely bespectacled law firm secretary Ling, shine with brief screen time. It all adds up to a post-film, pre-end-credits lecture on the dangers of actually hitting people with hammers and poking their eyes out. Whether 20th Century Fox was legally required to present this disclaimer or not, the way that it is shoehorned into the conclusion of the movie is insulting and tacky. It's but one more finite piece of evidence that these guys were best off remaining in their 1940s heyday. Transplanted to the 21st century, they're hopelessly out of touch.