"Three Stooges" a pleasantly slap-happy surprise of nyuck-nyucks and yuks

The Three Stooges (2012) 
92 min., rated PG.
You probably weren't lying awake at night wondering when someone would finally make a contemporary feature-length movie with Moe, Larry, and Curly stooging around. Even with the Farrelly brothers taking upon the project as a labor of love, the idea of reviving the five-decade-old vaudeville comedy team with actors imitating their shtick was met with major trepidation. The project had been stuck in Development Hell since 2000 from feature rights expiring, MGM's bankruptcy, and casting drop-outs (such as Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey). Then the lame teasers and trailers came: all the eye-poking, hair-pulling, and nyuck-nyucks would seem to go a long, long way and make for a bad, bad dud. But lo and behold and against all odds, "The Three Stooges" is an often gut-busting, pleasantly slap-happy surprise that re-creates and respects the cartoony tone and spirit of the knuckleheaded trio.

Instead of feeling like a cynical, desperate imitation, directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly (co-writing with frequent collaborator Mike Cerrone) make an affectionate homage that plucks these '30s-era eye-pokers into the age of the iPhone and Twitter. Through a cohesive "Blues Brothers"-style plot that's divided into three episodes and in and out at 90 minutes, "More Orphan Than Not," "Bananas Split," and "No Moe Mister Nice" each begin with the clownish song to any one of the real stooges' TV shorts. Dumped off in a sack on the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage, a trio of babies (one with a bowl cut, one with a receding hairline surrounded by curls, and one bald) are raised by the good-hearted nuns like "Angels from Heaven." Ten years later, the three stoogey terrors stick together like brothers, even when one of them gets the chance to be adopted. Cut to twenty-five years later: Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Larry (Sean Hayes), and Curly (Will Sasso) work as the grounds' handymen to show their devotion to the nuns. Once they hear that the orphanage will be foreclosed and one of the kids could be terminally ill, the trio makes it their mission to come up with $830,000 before their home shuts down. Then while our naive threesome desperately searches for work, they get mixed up with gold-digging hot tamale Lydia (Sofia Vergara and her bosoms), who tries tricking them into murdering her husband (Kirby Heyborne) so she can run off with her lover (Craig Bierko). The pure-of-heart stooges may be dim of wit, but they save the day!
Silly, bumbling slapstick that could have easily felt winded and obnoxiously violent is actually well-timed and belly-bonkingly funny. The three stooges were always about rapid-fire abuse, whether it be a hammer to the head, a fist in the gut, or a stick of dynamite being set off. It's all here and treated like a live-action cartoon set to sound effects, which is the only way to pull off age-old physical comedy without making us feel the pain. Though this time, to prove that modern times have upped the ante, hot irons are mistaken for hospital defibrillators (which is more painful than funny), but not even a chainsaw cuts through Curly's humpty-dumpty noggin. An amusing "Don't Poke Your Eyes Out" disclaimer at the end with muscleheads Antonio Sabato Jr. and Justin Lopez, palming themselves off as Bobby and Peter Farrelly, warns kids not to try any of it at home.

There are also great sight gags involving a "donut remover" (mistaken for a "Do Not Remove" sign on a giant bell that cold-cocks a nun), a ladder sawed in half, a salmon farm on a putting green, and the stooges dressing up in drag to pose as nurses. And for once, there's a fart joke that's quick as a flash and well-placed. In the third-act episode, having Moe inadvertently selected by an audition crew, he joins MTV's Jersey Shore reality show as "Dyna-Moe." What might sound like a misguided idea in theory actually calls for some more-than-welcome digs at the idiotic Jersey Shore cast, who all feel the physical torture of Moe. Whether schadenfreude is cruel or not, Snooki getting smacked and Ronnie's juicehead nuked in a microwave earn wicked giggles. If there are any dead spots, it's when a peanut gets lodged in a dolphin's blowhole and Larry performs the "Heineken Maneuver" on the poor animal, or a urination gag where Moe and Curly sword fight with peeing babies.

It would be unfair to call the performances of Moe, Larry, and Curly mere impressions because, respectively, Diamantopoulos, Hayes, and Sasso impeccably mimic every sound, tic, and movement while inhabiting their personalities. The lesser-known casting is inspired, and the time and energy taken to study and perfect the original Stooges' rhythm are worthy of applause. None of them seem to break a sweat. In particular, you have to remind yourself Sasso isn't really the woo-woo-wooing Curly Howard but just committed to his craft. And not a trace of Sean Hayes is found in Hayes' incarnation of Larry Fine, disappearing into the Bozo hair, which becomes the butt of chemo jokes. When the three are together, their slapstick routine is so well-executed and accurately choreographed with such effortless, balletic skill that it's really quite impressive.

Vergara does less Charro and more jiggly femme fatale, but gamely makes fun of herself. At one point, her honkers are actually given their own "HONK!" sound effect. Unfortunately, Jane Lynch's comedy skills are kept in check throughout, playing the kindly and understanding Mother Superior. There's a running joke that she nor any of the other nuns age for twenty-five years (even as the stooges are played by younger actors in the first episode), but the snarkiness of her Sue Sylvester on TV's Glee is sorely missed. Imagine if Sue had donned the habit. Instead, Larry David (yes, Larry David) gets to lay out the mean, cranky barbs as Sister Mary-Mengele. It's a funny bit of stunt casting, and the Farrellys thankfully never play "her" as a man in nun drag. Jennifer Hudson also turns up as Sister Rosemary when her pipes are needed. Lin Shaye, a great character actress and a Farrelly veteran, is pretty much wasted as Nurse Crotchet.

While "The Three Stooges" doesn't reach the part-homage, part-spoof time warp of 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie," the stooges' legacy is a trickier feat to recapture. It's not going to convert any non-aficionados. It should entertain young kids that laugh at any pratfall they see on "America's Home Videos." Though far from highbrow cinema, it's always entertaining and often hilarious for Stooge-philes (or anyone that catches re-runs on AMC in the wee hours of the morning), and there's a gentle sweetness at the core. From moviegoers to the Farrelly brothers, let bygones be bygones for 2007's gratingly unfunny remake of "The Heartbreak Kid" and 2011's dishearteningly safe "Hall Pass" because this is the brothers' most reverent non-gross-out work. (Nobody gets "hair gel" stuck to their ear!) If there's going to be any moe underrated movie this year, it might as well be "The Three Stooges," so keep the "poke my eyes out"/"no moe" puns to yourself because it soitenly wirks!