If comedy exists on a scale similar to the familiar classroom diagram of human evolution, the Three Stooges would land somewhere in the section with our knuckle-dragging simian ancestors. But whatever the slap-happy trio of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard may have lacked in sophistication and critical acclaim, they earned many times over in laughs and in profits from the cycle of shorts and films in that “classic” lineup’s 15-year run. It’s this configuration of characters that returns to the screen in the Farrelly Brothers’ homage to their populist predecessors, a project that languished for years in development hell (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Jim Carrey were once slated to play the Stooges in a version that never materialized, to the chagrin of few). And though The Three Stooges is a surprisingly tender and respectful nod to these iconic slapstick artists, the film is also an unintentional primer on the devolution of lowbrow comedy – an attempt to fill in a massive generation gap with gallons of baby piss.
Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, and Chris Diamantopoulos are physically passable as Larry, Curly, and Moe, respectively, but it’s the plot that stands out as noteworthy, at least by Three Stooges standards. Though structured as a series of “episodes,” the movie follows an unexpectedly strong thread as the three mooks struggle to save the Catholic orphanage that nurtured them through childhood and still employs them as live-in handymen. The diocese is in desperate need of cash, and the Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) is out of options when these man-children volunteer to go out into the real world and raise the money by any means necessary. It’s a significant challenge that tests the strength of the Stooges’ lifelong friendship, especially when they stumble into a murder plot hatched by a bombshell trophy wife (Sofia Vergara) who exploits the trio’s naivete for her own gain.
Despite maintaining the characters’ Bowery accents and anachronistic wardrobe, the movie doesn’t fully capitalize on the idea of the Stooges as castaways adrift in the modern world. Except from a highly enjoyable interlude where Moe terrorizes the cast of Jersey Shore, the 21st century is just a procession of generic backdrops for slapstick comedy: Hospital, Zoo, Fancy Party. The Stooges’ cartoonishly violent antics – which still cause enough consternation to necessitate a closing “don’t try this at home” disclaimer – don’t mesh well with the garden-variety potty humor. (I’m not sure why a close-up of lion testicles appears in a PG film, but there you go.) The resulting movie is a messy amalgamation of silliness and scatology. Credit The Three Stooges for doling out an impressive variety of physical abuse and letting its cast (which includes an unforgettable Larry David as a nun with an unrepentant hatred for the Stooges) indulge in spectacularly hammy performances. It’s just too bad that so many of its banal hijinks are beneath even these thick-skulled mouth breathers.