A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 30, 2012.
I've rarely laughed at the original Three Stooges shorts – there are nearly 200 of them, made between the 1930s and the 1950s – but the idea of a blow-by-blow recreation has a certain moronic beauty. A dream project for Peter and Bobby Farrelly (who gave us Dumb and Dumber) this feature-length tribute is both utterly transparent and weirder than anything else in multiplexes at present.
Though all three Stooges fall into the category “idiot man-child” it's possible to distinguish between them. Curly, played here by Will Sasso, is the burly one with the squeaky voice, Larry (Sean Hayes) is the sensitive soul with curly hair, and Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) is the bully who dominates the other two.
In the origin story devised by the Farrellys, the trio are introduced as foundlings – played by three of the dopiest-looking babies you'll ever see – who grow up under the care of the devoted Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) and her fearsome sidekick Sister Mary Mengele (Larry David). When the orphanage is threatened, they set off into the world, older but no wiser, vowing to raise the cash to save the day.
Ninety minutes of unassuming family entertainment, the new Stooges is also one of popular cinema's most extreme conceptual exercises since Gus van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998). The film may be only half as funny as, say, Sasha Baron Cohen's The Dictator, but it's far more focused; any chance for humour that doesn't fit the Stooge universe is scrupulously passed over.
In itself, Stooge comedy is intensely ritualised: the slaps and eye-pokes accompanied by stylised sound effects, the puns and malapropisms, the unified reactions to external stimulii (asked to pose for a photo, the three leap merrily into each others' arms). The new film faithfully imitates all this, along with many incidental aspects of its source material: the jocular music, the punning episode titles, and the one-dimensional acting required of the support players – stooges for the Stooges – who have the task of setting up the gags.
The stars are all expert but not equally persuasive: Diamantopoulos, a good-looking Broadway actor, is not really lumpen enough, and Hayes, who'd make a perfect Cowardly Lion, is a bit too mournfully expressive. Sasso achieves something closer to genuine idiocy – there's no indication of a mind at work behind the cheerful, jabbering facade.
Anything resembling visual ornament would be out of place here, and the plain camera style which the Farrellys have honed over the years serves them well (the key thing, as in the original shorts, is to have all three Stooges on screen side by side). Yet the seemingly rambling script slowly reveals itself as a well-built box where every scene advances the plot; it takes impressive craft to pull that off and ensure that the Stooges are never on screen for more than a few seconds without bopping each other.
The issue of how far the material needs updating has to be managed with great care. The mayhem remains bloodless and though the Farrellys were once known as kings of the gross-out, a set-piece involving a hospital ward full of incontinent babies feels slightly misjudged. On the other hand, much of the fun arises from seeing the Stooges tackle the stupidities of the 21st century, with jokes about Facebook (“Poke me”) the Kardashians and Jersey Shore.
American reviewers have noted that the Farrellys, who come from Irish Catholic stock, have erased all trace of their heroes' Jewish origins. But doesn't Stooge humour belong to everybody? On one level, the Stooges seem like products of a Depression-era immigrant melting pot; on another, they're simply obnoxious kids whose running battles will be familiar to anybody who recalls travelling with siblings in the back of a car.
There's an innocence not only to the project but to the Farrellys themselves – probably the only Hollywood comedy directors now working who can wring pathos from the plight of a sick child without irony. The film stands in all humility as an authentic act of devotion; in God's eyes, the Farrellys would have us believe, even Stooges are worthy of love.