Film Review: The Three Stooges

A misbegotten attempt to revive the anarchic slapstick antics of the trio who scandalized generations of parents and update it for 21st-century audiences. Bottom line: However vulgar, corny and juvenile the real Stooges could be, they were funny.

We first meet the Stooges when a sack is rudely tossed onto the doorstep of an orphanage run by nuns. Inside are three babies whom the sisters find so adorable that they squabble—graciously, of course, as befits such pious ladies—over who gets to feed, bathe and cuddle them.

Cut to: Now ten, the boys are such hellions that the blessed brides of Jesus are reduced to squabbling rather less than decorously over who has to deal with them. After Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), whose belief in their fundamental goodness has survived a decade of challenges, discovers them preparing to perform surgery on Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), even she's up for getting rid of them. Enter the wealthy, childless Harters (Stephen Collins and Carly Craig), who are looking to adopt a child; with any luck the sisters can guilt them into taking the terrible trio. Of course, that means hiding all the other children, because no one in his or her right mind would choose Moe, Larry and Curly (Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz and Robert Capron) if they thought there were another option. In the end, the Harters choose Moe, only to return him when he decides he can't leave Larry and Curly and instead adopt the adorable Teddy (Jake Peck).

Cut to: Now adults, Moe (Chris Diamantopolos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) still live at the orphanage, supposedly earning their keep as handymen and groundskeepers despite the fact that everything they touch sets off a chain reaction of escalating disaster: Send them up a bell tower to do repairs and you can be sure that the bell will come tumbling down and cold-cock someone. To be fair, though, they do love kids and kids love them—especially poor, sickly little Murph (Avalon Robbins)—and they're utterly devoted to the kindly sisters. So the boys are hit hard by the news that the orphanage will shut down in 30 days unless some miracle produces $830,000 to pay off its delinquent tax bill. How can they not try to raise the money?

Next thing you know, the boys immediately get themselves entangled in a murder-for-hire plot concocted by gold-digger Lydia (Sofia Vergara), who wants her much-older husband out of the way sooner rather than later. By the time their great adventure is over, they will have reconnected with the grown Teddy (Kirby Heyborne), donned drag to play nurses (apparently there are no male nurses in Stooge World), nearly killed a dolphin with a peanut, discovered the world of reality TV (Moe is tapped to join the cast of “Jersey Shore”), and exposed Lydia and her lover (Craig Bierko) for the very bad people they are.

The fact that writer-director brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly have sung their devotion to The Three Stooges to anyone who would listen makes the tone-deafness of this update just that little bit more perplexing. I'm no fan of the real Stooges—What woman is?—but could never deny that they had razor-sharp timing, all-in dedication to pushing a gag as far as it could be pushed and, above all, a chemistry that made their characters seem naively befuddled by the world's complexities rather than grotesque. Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso clearly did their homework and hit all the familiar notes, from n'yuk-n'yuk-n'yuk to wooo-wooo-wooo, but not one rings true; they come off as awkward imitations rather than organic reinterpretations. And that makes the brutal violence of their gags—from eye-pokes to bitch-slaps—all the more glaringly unpleasant: Any parent who wants to relive the fun of seeing the old Three Stooges shorts on TV with his kids would do better to invest in a DVD of the real thing.