Faithfulness to source material can be a double-edged sword. When the faithfulness arises not out of fear of angering a fanbase, but from the love of the filmmakers for the material, then at the very least you have something good-hearted and genuine. But faithfulness can also be a crutch and impediment to creativity. The Farrell Brothers have a difficult time in striking the balance between good-hearted humor and slavish devotion in their adaptation of The Three Stooges. They keep the eponymous characters as lovable misfits, and when they’re playing to the characters’ stupidity, the Farrellys have an enjoyable comedy on their hands. But when they also lean far too much on Moe slapping around his brothers and Curly’s various tics, The Three Stooges becomes a movie that will only appeal to kids.
Larry (Sean Hayes), Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), and Curly (Will Sasso) have spent their entire lives at an orphanage, and caused nothing but headaches for the nuns in charge. They don’t mean to make trouble. They’re just unbearably clumsy and stupid. But their hearts are in the right place, and when the orphanage is in danger of closing unless it raises $830,000, the brothers go out into the world to earn the money. Their attempts to get the cash lead them to meet Lydia (Sofia Vergara) who wants the trio to kill her rich husband, but she deceives them into thinking that it’s a mercy killing. Shenanigans ensue.
The movie starts particularly strong when it opens not with the adult actors, but with the Stooges as kids. Rather than drop us in the deep end, we have time to get acclimated to the world the Farrellys are trying to create, and makes sure we know the Stooges are supposed to be adorable troublemakers who never mean to hurt anyone. It also shows that the movie has a big heart since it’s willing to show how Larry, Moe, and Curly smack each other around, but they ultimately care about each other. Finally, we know that even though the movie is called “The Three Stooges”, Moe (played as a kid by Skyler Gisondo) is the lead character. It all comes together when you have a scene like Moe getting adopted, trying to convince his new parents to also take in Larry and Curly, getting dropped back off at the orphanage in exchange for a non-Stooge, and then chasing after the car and yelling how he had changed his mind.
When it works outside the box of what we know already know about the Stooges—the slapstick, Curly’s wacky sounds, and the cartoony sound effects—The Three Stooges is a movie everyone can enjoy. When Larry reads a sign saying “Do Not Remove” as “Donut Remover”, and removes a pin that causes a giant bell to fall on Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), it’s funny. No one can ever be killed or permanently injured in this world. The guys can drop a stick of dynamite (which Curly always has on him) into a full body cast, and everyone is okay. As a live-action cartoon, The Three Stooges almost always works, especially when it’s relying on jokes instead of habits.
Even people who are vaguely familiar with the Stooges know that Moe tends to beat up on his brothers with eye-pokes, slaps, etc. They also probably know that Curly talks in a high-pitched voice and makes weird noises. Regardless of how well you know the Stooges’ shtick, you’ll be sick of it by the end of the movie. There are only so many times you can watch Moe poke his brothers in the eyes or have Curly bark like a dog. Kids will get a kick out of these antics throughout the picture, but kids are easy to impress. (The movie at least acts responsibly by telling kids that all of the stunts were done with stuff like rubber props, and how they faked poking people in the eyes) A kids’ movie is best judged by how well adults in the audience can tolerate the picture. Curly’s mannerisms are intolerable.
The movie also seems to have an uneasy relationship with putting the Stooges in the present day. If the characters are in a hospital or at the orphanage, places that aren’t exclusive to 2012, then they fit right in. But when the Farrellys bring MTV’s Jersey Shore in as a key element in the movie’s plot, it feels like the filmmakers no longer trust their characters. The Three Stooges‘ greatest strength is a pure-hearted love of the property, and weaving in Jersey Shore is a betrayal of that love. It says The Three Stooges don’t have enough juice for their own movie (and granted, even at 90 minutes the movie feels long), so they need to borrow the popularity of a contemporary TV series.
The Three Stooges is undeniably a kids movie (which is another reason Jersey Shore sticks out; it’s done squarely to appeal to the adult members of the audience), but it can be fun for all ages. Even when the Jersey Shore plot is introduced, the movie barely has an ounce of cynicism. The Farrellys manage to hit the right mixture of goofy fun and clever gags on a fairly consistent basis. It’s only when original jokes are left behind in favor of lazy familiarity that the adult members of the audience feel like they’re getting a sharp poke in the eye.