March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Contemporary 'Three Stooges' misses more often than it hits


When I was a kid, the Three Stooges were taboo; my mother banned them from our house because their brand of eye-poking, head-slapping, stomach-punching horseplay was exactly the sort of roughhousing she dreaded seeing in the living room or the backyard. She also deep-sixed The Monkees as well, perhaps because she didn’t want her children to fall under the spell of Don Kirshner and start a boy-band.

Happily for people like my mom (who, aside from her irrational hatred of The Monkees and the Stooges, has flawless taste), the Farrelly Brothers’ big-screen version of “The Three Stooges” concludes with a finger-wagging “don’t try this at home”-style warning that shows how the hard-hitting slapstick was carefully choreographed by professionals.

More good news, Mom: There’s not a single note of Monkees music in the entire movie.

The contemporary Stooges — Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos — accurately and energetically reproduce most of the trademark bits of their predecessors, including Curly’s growl, Larry’s nasal whine and Moe’s penchant for punching. Stooges connoisseurs will note many of the trio’s signature gags have been recycled here; some of them are still good for a few giggles, while others fall flat. The Farrellys also throw in some in-jokes, such as a sign that tells us the Stooges’ childhood home, the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage, was founded in 1934, coincidentally, the same year the original Stooges released their first short-subject.

But what’s the point? Anyone with a decent Internet connection can watch many of the classic Stooges comedies from the 1930s and 1940s on YouTube and, unsurprisingly, they’re much funnier and less studied than the Farrellys’ well-intentioned but misguided update.

The history of this project is considerably more interesting than the final product. Various plans for Stooges movies have sprung up and fallen apart in the past decade, with stars such as Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Sean Penn, Paul Giamatti, Ewan McGregor, Woody Harrelson and Johnny Knoxville being courted for roles. Somewhere along the line, what was once supposed to be a high-profile film turned into a cheap-looking flick with a cast that could charitably be called second-rate, and while Hayes, Sasso and Diamantopoulos cheerfully go to painful extremes for a few cheap laughs, the borderline-bizarre screenplay offers them little in the way of support.

A mix of typical Stooges shenanigans (including mistaken identities, gleeful destruction, goofy chases and pratfalls a-plenty) and a groan-worthy, sticky-sweet “save the sick kids” subplot, the story is broken into three installments that are intended to reflect the two-reelers that made the Stooges famous. The novelty value of a modern-day “Stooges” wears thin fairly quickly, however, as the Farrellys skip from antics at the orphanage (overseen by a baffled-looking Jennifer Hudson and Jane Lynch, in a colorless Mother Superior role that Cher wisely turned down) to a botched murder-for-murder scheme involving a trampy wife (an unfunny Sofia Vergara) and her dopey paramour (wanly played by Craig Bierko).

As a capper, the Farrellys dive straight to the bottom of the barrel, sticking the Stooges with, of all people, the cast of “Jersey Shore.” Not only does this mind-boggling, witless episode conclusively prove that Snooki, The Situation, J-Woww and company have no comic timing whatsoever, it also demonstrates they can’t even play themselves convincingly.

The movie ends with the cast grooving to a cover version of The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame,” an appropriate choice for a film that’s squandered 90 minutes of the audience’s time and an amazing amount of its performers’ energy. I’ll debate her on the merits of the original Stooges films, but when it comes to the Farrellys’ “Stooges,” I have to concede that mother knows best.