'The Three Stooges': A Passable Reboot of a Mediocre Comedy Institution

The new Farrelly brothers' movie successfully channels the silly charms of Larry, Curly, and Moe.

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20th Century Fox

Every once in a while, a film finds exactly who it needs to carry out its specific and singular vision. Think Terminator, which cast real-life monotone robot Arnold Schwarzenegger as a monotone robot, or Funny People, in which sellout comedian Adam Sandler played a sellout comedian. The same serendipity applies to The Three Stooges—a feature-length film based on a long-running series about three idiots bludgeoning each other, which hits theaters today: It found the perfectly average, slapstick-happy directors to fulfill its modest ambitions: Peter and Bobby Farrelly.

The Farrelly brothers, who peaked with 1994's stupid-smart Dumb and Dumber and have spent the rest of their careers trying to equal it, are striking at the very origins of slapstick with The Three Stooges. It's not hard to see why; The Three Stooges is, after all, the slapstick Rosetta Stone on which they've built their filmmaking careers (Jim Carrey's Dumb and Dumber bowl cut is just one of many Stooges references they've snuck into their oeuvre).

"The Three Stooges," along with Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, are one of the few classic-comedy teams to have earned a lasting place in America's collective pop-culture consciousness. They also hold up the worst; though the tricky wordplay of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?"still sings, beloved "Stooges" shorts like "Disorder in the Court" feel repetitive and draggy after more than one viewing. With "Disorder in the Court and 219 other film appearances between 1930 and 1970, the "Three Stooges" established themselves as the most reliable source for manic, comedic violence outside of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. But the 1975 deaths of founding Stooges Moe Howard and Larry Fine spelled the end of new Stooge material, other than a 2000 made-for-TV biopic (starring a pre-The Shield Michael Chiklis as Curly). Though the merchandizing machine kept rolling, the Three Stooges were, for all intents and purposes, retired.

Until now—if America will accept these big-screen doppelgangers as the Stooges' next generation. Whatever the faults of The Three Stooges, it's hard not to admire the Farrellys' passion; they tried to bring Larry, Moe, and Curly to the silver screen for over a decade before finally succeeding (and I use the term generously) with today's film. In its seemingly endless round to production, The Three Stooges' behind-the-scenes reports have held the horror and fascination of train wreck; as recently as 2009, Variety reported that the Stooges would be played by Sean Penn, Jim Carrey, and Benicio del Toro—a trio of actors so random that The Three Stooges sounded less like a coherent movie and more like a bizarre, celebrity-themed game of Mad Libs. Unfortunately, a Three Stooges adaptation starring Harvey Milk, Ace Ventura, and Che Guevara proved too wonderfully bizarre to be true. As the A-list actors departed The Three Stooges one by one, they were replaced by D-Listers: Chris Diamantopoulos (24), Sean Hayes (Will and Grace), and Will Sasso (MADtv). Though they're passable look-and-soundalikes, Diamantopoulos, Hayes, and Sasso are at best the Salieri to the original Stooges' Mozart: They know all the notes, but they can't make the music.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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