Chris Diamantopoulos, left, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso star as the title… (Peter Iovino, 20th Century…)
There is an appealing nyuk, nyuk nostalgic spirit to"The Three Stooges."To fully appreciate this paean to slapstick and silly nonsense simply requires that cynicism be temporarily shelved and the thinking side of the brain shut down.
Starring Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos as Larry, Curly and Moe, this affectionate update is a love letter to the Stooges from the filmmaking Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby. Though they may be best known for the R-rated "There's Something About Mary," there is a Stooge streak a mile long running through their work — the bumbling misfits with a heart of gold in their first film, "Dumb & Dumber," for starters. It ultimately made them a good fit for an idea that has gone through many iterations in the last few years — from a highbrow biopic of the comics to the no-brow roots of its humor.
In "Stooges," they have embraced the comic absurdity of the classic trio so wholeheartedly that it's almost impossible not to be won over by the eye-poking, head-slapping, nose-twisting shenanigans that pepper nearly every scene. (There's a funny disclaimer for kids at the end with two bodybuilder types claiming to be the Farrellys basically warning: "Don't do this at home.")
Though technically set in present day, everything about the film feels as if it was plucked out of the '40s, the heyday of the comic shorts that would cement the Stooges in history, including the clothes, with Curly's always too short and too tight. The film itself is constructed to echo the shorts format, with its three acts unfolding as three distinctly marked episodes, all tied to the orphanage where they're dropped off as babies. Before the last slap and the final "Nyaaaaaahhhhh," there will be an adoption to bungle, an orphanage to destroy and save, a beauty (Sofia Vergara) to distract them, a murder to consider and a brief run at fame.
The action begins when three toddlers — one bald, one with a bowl haircut, and one with a receding hairline surrounded by frizzy red curls — are tossed on the steps of the orphanage. In keeping with the '40s sensibility, it's a happy place run by good-hearted nuns, with Jane Lynch as the long-suffering and ever forgiving Mother Superior, keeping her "Glee" cynicism completely in check. Jennifer Hudson is Sister Rosemary and seems primarily there to periodically break out in song, which the movie does when it feels like it. And best of all is a scene-stealing Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele, who's never met a moment that didn't offer some irritant to be squashed, some optimism to be squelched.
The guys may be babies, but their DNA makes it clear they are already Stooges, with an eye poke that sends Sister Mary-Mengele flying. From that point on, the eye-poking and the eye-rolling never stop. As the boys grow up, the head slaps and the rest of the highly choreographed hitting mayhem that characterizes all the Stooges interactions becomes the centerpiece of the movie. The success of the film hangs on pulling off the sight gags, with the Farrellys' getting the rhythm of a Stooges bit — basically action, bad reaction, then over-reaction — mostly right.
Diamantopoulos, a versatile stage actor who pops up frequently on TV, is the film's anchor as Moe. He doesn't just channel Moe's irascibility but his underlying affection for Larry and Curly. On the physical front, and in Stooge-land it's ever present, Sasso is the master. He was a regular on the Fox sketch comedy show "MADtv" and has impeccable timing, from his finger snapping to his fearless pratfalls. There is great fun in the way that Curly never sees the next poke or slap coming. Hayes, on the other hand, as Larry seems to spend the film bracing for that next hit, and he struggles even more with stupid.
There is a plot (the brothers wrote the screenplay with Mike Cerrone) — as always the Stooges need a mission to mishandle — that requires them to make their way to the big city to try to save the orphanage, but really it is there to allow them to bump and bungle a lot of current cultural references. They get themselves into various dicey situations, including one with "Jersey Shore's" the Situation, but really there are no "deep thoughts," just another round of spats, spills and sight gags, including classics like all the ways a ladder and a wall can be played for laughs.
Without question, the movie is the most reverent work the irreverent Farrelly brothers have done, with nary a trace of the filmmakers' edgier side slipping into this family fare. For all the physical antics and the general stupidity that is a Stooges trademark, it's a strangely gentle comedy, not quite the ridiculous laugh riot fans of the trio might expect, but a very amusing escape from anything that resembles the real world.