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The boinks, pokes, slaps, nyuk-nyuks and nyaaahhhs mostly sound right and hit their marks in The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers‘ funny, good-hearted resuscitation of Hollywood’s beloved lowbrow lunkheads. Gestating for so long it nearly qualifies as a dream project finally come to fruition, this boisterous and affectionate comedy has more plot and sentiment than the boys’ shorts ever had in their ’30s-’40s heyday, but the winning cast and sympathetic spirit almost immediately strip away any skepticism long-term hardcore fans might carry in with them. While older aficionados and young kids should be on board with this PG-rated Fox release, the main commercial question mark perhaps centers upon 30ish viewers with a Stooge gap, too young to have grown up on syndicated TV broadcasts but too old to have had their childhoods enhanced by the DVD repackagings.
Casting was always the big issue with this long-simmering venture. For years, Peter and Bobby Farrelly were courting big names to play the boys, including the likes of Russell Crowe, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Paul Giamatti. After a while, it seemed as though this was a film that was never meant to be. The happy ending, however, is that the less-known Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso and Sean Hayes are entirely on the money as Moe, Curly and Larry, respectively, nailing the voices, carrying off the essential familiar moves with aplomb and, in Hayes’ case, even bringing a little something extra to the least-defined Stooge.
Although the original team always wanted to make feature-length films (but never did until very late in the game and never with Curly), Columbia boss Harry Cohn probably rightly judged that their one-dimensional brand of physical comedy would play best in a short format. The Farrellys cleverly address this issue by dividing their 92-minute farce into three related episodes, the first of which presents the threesome as young boys anxious to be adopted from the rural Sisters of Mercy Orphanage, where they were dropped as tykes in a burlap bag.
The Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) and her associate with the immortal name of Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David in drag) spend decades trying to unload the inseparable trio, who do menial work around the grounds that allows the actors to begin strutting their comic stuff with the same sorts of props — hammers, mallets, saws, ladders, wood beams, bicycles, fire hydrants, a church bell and so on — with which the originals wreaked such havoc (the prominently displayed founding date for the orphanage, 1934, marks the year the Stooges began their tenure at Columbia).
With the institution deeply in debt, Episode #2, entitled “The Bananas Split,” sees the boys unleashed upon the big city (Atlanta, in point of fact), where they have resolved to come up with the $830,000 required to save the orphanage from ruin. On the promise of ample reward, they become embroiled in a murder scheme perpetrated by illicit lovers (Sofia Vergara, who gets a boob thoughtlessly stepped upon at one point with sonic accentuation, and Craig Bierko) against the woman’s wealthy husband (Kirby Heyborne), the fallout from which quickly leads to a hospital, which provides a setting bulging with comic possibilities.
For at least the 25 years since Three Men and a Baby, the gag of babies peeing up into the faces of adults trying to change their diapers has been desperately unwelcome. However, the sight of the Stooges brandishing a nursery full of straight-shooting bambini like so many squirt guns gives the joke a new lease on life. Men encased in body casts are shown no mercy, nor is a man who gets fresh with Curly when he’s disguised as a nurse.
A massive slap-fest, designed, it would seem, to incorporate nearly every classic move in the Stooge playbook directly leads to the film’s strangest interlude, which has Moe enlisted to join the cast of Jersey Shore. The mop head’s interactions with Snooki, The Situation and the rest of them are more weird than actually funny — Moe and the reality-show denizens don’t seem to occupy the same universe or century — though it is not unamusing to see him administering well-placed pokes and jabs to the TV layabouts. The nuttiness climaxes at a lavish upscale party that just begs to have its balloon punctured by the Stooges posing as hired help.
In an era of defined by extreme R-rated Hangover humor and Jackass-style physical punishment, The Three Stooges is mild indeed. Still, there were many parents who, in the old days, wouldn’t allow their kids to watch Moe, Curly and Larry for fear that their tots would start hammering away at one another or take pliers to their friends’ teeth. Even now, some of the gags are still alarming enough to have prompted the Farrellys to add a clever postscript revealing how their “weapons” are made of rubber and admonishing young’uns not to imitate what they’ve just seen.
Given the indelible figures cut by real-life brothers Moe and Jerry (Curly) Howard and Larry Fine, it’s a real tribute to Diamantopoulos, Sasso and Hayes how quickly one is willing to accept, then embrace the actors as these iconic characters. Physical resemblance, enabled by extensive makeup, wigs and costumes, is the easy part. But vocally they’re also spot-on, and Sasso is able to execute all of Curly’s famous moves, including spinning on the ground, with graceful precision. They may not be the real things, but if the matches were any closer, you’d suspect resurrection or cloning.
Production: Conundrum Entertainment, Charles B. Wessler Entertainment
Cast: Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Hudson, Craig Bierko, Stephen Collins, Larry David, Kirby Heyborne, Carly Craig, Kate Upton, Marianne Leone, Brian Doyle-Murray
Directors: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly
Screenwriters: Mike Cerrone, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Producers: Bradley Thomas, Charles B. Wessler, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Executive producers: Earl M. Benjamin, Robert N. Benjamin, Marc S. Fischer
Director of photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Production designer: Arlan Jay Vetter
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Sam Seig
Music: John Debney
PG rating, 92 minutes