Like a freshness experiment in how long comedy can keep, the Farrelly brothers’ The Three Stooges places its titular trio, now played by Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly), and Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe), in the present day pretty much unchanged. They aren’t explained away as time travelers, or characters sucked out of a TV and into real life; they’re just three man-children with odd haircuts and old-fashioned wardrobes, using words like “youse” and engaging in elaborate pratfalls. To make this divide even more evident, the trio is placed in the company of terribly contemporary types like Jane Lynch (playing a nun), Jennifer Hudson (playing another nun), and the cast of Jersey Shore (playing themselves, if you want to call it that).
The Three Stooges isn’t very funny, but it is, like last year’s far superior The Muppets, a sincere act of fandom on an epic scale. The plot, which involves Sofia Vergara as a murderous femme fatale and the saving of the boys’ childhood home, is there only to usher the Stooges through basic locations—orphanage, city street, hospital, fancy party—that serve as backdrops for their bits of action. And even those who have never seen one of the original Three Stooges shorts will know what that entails: heads clunking together, eye-pokes, whoop-oop-oop-oop, and nyuk nyuk nyuk, all with cartoon-style sound effects. (When someone steps on Vergara’s breast for leverage, for instance, it makes a honking noise.)
The faith the Farrellys have in the lasting entertainment value of this specific brand of vaudeville-born physical comedy is touching, if misguided. The Stooges’ work may well be timeless, but that doesn’t mean it can be easily transferred. This will probably be the first Stooges exposure for the film’s intended audience (it’s aimed young enough that there’s a disclaimer at the end in which the “directors,” played by two ex-soap-opera stars, explain the stunts are faked), and it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to focus on the gags and not the weird, disjointed rest of the movie. While many of those jokes fall flat (a scene involving baby urine goes on for what feels like six to seven hours), they’re still better than the surrounding material, which is shot in an ugly, ineffectual way that looks like it was thrown together in someone’s backyard, down to the makeup visible on the actors’ faces. How did they make Vergara look so awful? Though since she took this role, obviously she wasn’t that concerned.