Watching The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers' new incarnation of the vintage slapstick characters, one thing is clear: Bobby and Peter Farrelly genuinely love the Three Stooges. Plenty of old properties get dusted off and trotted out as cynical money-making ploys, but here the Farrellys demonstrate real affection for Larry, Moe, and Curly (their opinion of Shemp remains unexamined). I don't doubt for a minute their sincerity in wanting people to rediscover the old eye-poking, nose-twisting Stooge magic.
Nor do I think it's insulting to the legacies of Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Curly Howard to have other actors play the icons they created, any more than it was disrespectful to find a new voice for Kermit after Jim Henson died. You have to do it right, of course, and the degree of difficulty in doing it right is immense, but there's nothing inherently distasteful about the idea.
No, any reasonable objections to the Farrellys' Three Stooges will not be on the grounds that it desecrates a revered comedy franchise, but on the grounds that it's not very funny. The screenplay (which the Farrellys wrote with longtime pal Mike Cerrone) has a workable premise -- Larry, Moe, and Curly must raise money to save the orphanage they grew up in -- but it's hindered by something that might be an unavoidable truth when it comes to Stooge humor: a little of it goes a long way. The original trio made 20-minute shorts that were concentrated doses of physical shtick, unburdened by matters of character development or continuity. Stretching that into 90 minutes means adding supporting characters and subplots, rising action and interpersonal conflicts. If there's a way to do that so it blends seamlessly with the simple Stooge aesthetic, the Farrellys didn't find it.
Larry (Sean Hayes), Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), and Curly (Will Sasso), in their efforts to raise money, are tricked into working with a gorgeous rich woman (Sofia Vergara) who's looking to get rid of her husband (Kirby Heyborne) so she can run off with his best friend (Craig Bierko). The fellas squabble over how to proceed, and while squabbling is an integral part of Stoogedom, it's supposed to manifest itself in punching and smacking, not in Moe separating from the other two and going off on his own. (Tender moments? In The Three Stooges? The only thing that should be tender is Curly's forehead, after Moe drags a cheese grater across it.) That bad idea is compounded by another one, as Moe stumbles into a career as the newest cast member of MTV's Jersey Shore. If you're skeptical about Stooge humor being performed by a new Larry, Moe, and Curly, wait till you see it done by Snooki and The Situation.
Meanwhile, back at the orphanage -- well, you don't care about what's happening at the orphanage, do you? Any scene that doesn't have at least two Stooges in it is a waste of time, and feels like one. But for the record, the nuns are played by Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Upton, and, amusingly, Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele, the meanest, manliest nun who ever crossed paths with three hammer-swinging boys. There's a sick kid, too, but whatever.
Scattered throughout the film and appearing at unpredictable intervals are a handful of solid laughs. When they're not bogged down with non-Stooge matters, the Farrellys are quite faithful in re-creating the tone and flavor of Stooge humor, and every now and then a gag works exactly as it was meant to. The mayhem never builds into anything gut-busting, but it's watchable. Hayes, Sasso, and Diamantopoulos do exceptionally good impersonations of Larry, Curly, and Moe's voices and mannerisms, and they execute the slapstick choreography with satisfying skill. The actors obviously learned the routines the way a great dancer learns a ballet -- through careful study and painstaking rehearsal, and probably a lot of ice packs -- and the Farrellys give them plenty of wide shots and unbroken takes to show it off.
What's strange is that even when what they're doing is exactly like something you'd see in an old Three Stooges short, it doesn't register a lot of laughs. Yanking your friend's tongue or hitting him in the face with a plank of wood isn't automatically funny; you have to work for it, and these guys know it. They have worked for it. But it's still not quite there. Maybe it's just that the original Stooges perfected their craft over the course of decades while these guys have had to take a crash course, but it also feels like there's some intangible magic that can't be forced no matter how closely you re-create the circumstances. (Remember that shot-for-shot remake of Psycho?) There are individual moments of Stooge bliss to be found here, but everything surrounding them is a dud.