Can you take any Moe?

The Three Stooges

No Moe, please! No Moe!

No Moe, please! No Moe!

Rated 4.0

When it comes to the Three Stooges, some kids never grow up. As preview trailers for Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s new reboot-cum-homage The Three Stooges began showing up on theater screens, I reflected on my own attitude toward Moe, Larry and Curly (or Shemp, the third Stooge I knew as a kid): I loved them back then, but I outgrew them, and never became one of those guys waiting for the next Stooge-athon to turn up on Comedy Central. But what can I say? The new movie was hardly underway before it dawned on me that maybe I haven’t grown up as much as I thought.

The Three Stooges, directed by the Farrelly brothers and written by them and Mike Cerrone, is essentially the movie equivalent of a tribute-band performance. These things are almost always ill-advised—the shelves at Netflix distribution centers are bulging with unwanted copies of The Little Rascals (1994). But Stooges defies the odds; the Farrellys understand the structure and spirit of the original Stooges, and, to extend the “tribute band” metaphor, they’ve assembled a trio of first-rate “musicians.”

Two trios, actually. We first see them as babies dumped in a duffle bag on the doorstep of the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage, discovered by cranky Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David in drag). Ten years later, they’re played by Lance Chantiles-Wertz (Larry), Skyler Gisondo (Moe) and Robert Capron (Curly), then finally, 25 years after that, by Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso. When Larry, Moe and Curly learn that the orphanage (where they’ve lingered for 35 years because no parents would ever adopt them) faces foreclosure unless they can come up with a quick $830,000, the boys strike out to earn the money and save their home.

Look out, world.

The plot is cribbed from The Blues Brothers, a clever ploy to rope in the same demographic that transferred their childhood Stoogemania to Jake and Elwood Blues in the 1980s. Cerrone and the Farrellys also structure their script as three connected episodes, with punning titles like the ones for the original Stooge shorts for Columbia—“More Orphan Than Not,” “The Bananas Split” and “No Moe Mister Nice Guy”—an idea that never occurred to the real Stooges when they went from shorts to features in the late 1950s. And like Jules White, the Stooges’ original producer-director, they surround the boys with a bunch of serious straight men and women (Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Sofia Vergara, Craig Bierko) to set off and underline the rambunctious slapstick.

The movie necessarily stands or falls on the performances of the Stooges themselves, and we can only thank heaven that some of the names floating around during the movie’s 10 years of development hell (Sean Penn, Jim Carrey, Benicio del Toro, Johnny Depp, Johnny Knoxville, etc.) didn’t stay attached to the project. Hayes, Diamantopoulos and Sasso simply are the Three Stooges, and in all the cockamamie shenanigans the subtlety of their impersonations shouldn’t go unnoticed. I mean, with all that grimacing and nyuk-nyuk-nyuk-ing, if so much as one tiny facial muscle or vocal inflection was out of place, it would stick out like a wax banana to fans who grew up watching the real Larry, Curly and Moe do this stuff 300 times over. I was particularly struck by the way Hayes duplicates Larry Fine’s raspy nasal voice. And Diamantopoulos nails Moe Howard’s scowling New York snarl exactly right—especially for an actor whose first language was Greek.

In case children are tempted to try this at home (never an issue when I was a kid), the Farrelly brothers come on at the end to caution them against it. Only it’s not really the Farrellys, it’s two handsome hunks (Justin Lopez and Antonion Sabato Jr.) impersonating them, and we buy it just as happily as we bought those other guys filling in for Larry, Moe and Curly.

For a movie that, let’s face it, didn’t really need to be made, The Three Stooges is one of the most delightful surprises to come along in years. It’s funny in exactly the “stoopid” way that the original Stooges were, and even if we kids grew up to prefer our comedy from Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers—or for that matter, Noël Coward or Oscar Wilde—it reminds us that these three dopes once made us laugh our little heads off.