Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s The Three Stooges is a slavish imitation of the Stooges’ shorts with a trio of eerie replicants — yet wow. Just wow. The combination of childlike glee and grown-up precision is a wonder. The movie actually earns the right to exist, which is no mean feat.
The brothers grok the Stooges’ brilliance in spite of the movies’ tiny budgets, patchy scripts, and limited catalogue of routines. Seasoned Jewish vaudevillians, they made music out of incompetence, infantilism, and rage — a symphony of boinks and bonks and hollow thumps and whinnies and rrrruffffffs and “Whatsa mattah with you?”-whomp-ow-ow-ow-ows. Here, the performers transcend mimicry. Despite a touch of Cagney in his diction, Chris Diamontopoulos nails Moe’s inexhaustible irritability, the trembling edge in his voice, the glint in his eye when he knows it’s time to brain either Curly or Larry (or both in succession), and that exquisite beat between intention and action. Sean Hayes — best known as the sprightly Jack from Will & Grace — is unrecognizable, and he gets Larry’s dreamy malingering, his mixture of righteous indignation and yellow-bellied fatalism. In a sea of Curly imitators, Will Sasso is an island unto himself: Savor the quavery falsetto trill, the defiant bleat, the canine gnashing, the stutter steps. In the worst of the shorts (and the godawful late features), there were tedious gaps between the episodes of physical abuse, but the Farrellys distill the Stooges’ essence and keep those choreographed conks coming. Watching The Three Stooges, I was hit by a terrible realization. There are plenty of intricate fights in movies these days, but no slapstick of consequence — not even the second-rate Disney antics of Dean Jones and a willful cat or Volkswagen. Why have pratfalls fallen so out of fashion?
The Three Stooges is not, it must be said, a sparkling piece of filmmaking. The real Stooges were better in small doses and the fakes wear out their welcome, too. But the Farrellys and co-writer Mike Cerrone have devised a decent-enough plot in which the “boys” set out to earn money to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised (and still live). They’re hired as hit men by a scheming wife (Sofia Vergara, seen reading The Weekly Standard) and the lover (Craig Bierko) pretending to be her terminally ill husband —a job they make a hilarious mess of, as they’ve made a mess of so many jobs over the course of their tumultuous career. The film hits an iceberg when Moe gets cast in a reality show alongside Snooki and her co-stars, who have no energy, no screen presence, and nowhere near enough wit to send themselves up. Comedy isn’t for real fools.
Things are better at the orphanage. The Mother Superior is Jane Lynch, a treat despite a low-key role, but the laurels go to Larry David in a habit as the shrewish nun who’s always berating the nitwit trio before getting accidentally whomped or crushed or propelled out a high window. It’s not just stunt casting: The part liberates the ferocious scold I’ve always suspected is at the root of David’s passive-aggressive persona. He looks like he’s having fun letting it out.
It’s clever of the Farrellys to make The Three Stooges both exceedingly violent and PG wholesome, with sweet little moppets (a girl who’s very sick, a boy who won’t leave her side) and a message of hope. In a (tongue-in-cheek) gesture to moralists who fear a spate of concussions and gouged-out eyes, the brothers add a coda warning children not to hit people over the head with lead pipes, etc. I have friends who claim to have been victimized in their youth by brothers imitating Stooges routines, but I was never tempted. What’s the point without the familiar sound effects, the tricky rhythms, the victims who stick around for more punishment? You have to be as committed as the Farrellys to make it sting and sing.