When people think of the Three Stooges the poked eyeballs, smashed noggins, and yanked nostrils; the boink! plonk! and clang! sound effects; the snarling martinet sadism of Moe or the castrato dementia of that giant whirligig baby Curly they tend to have one of two reactions. Either they view the Stooges with eye-rolling contempt, dismissing them as talentless and unfunny nincompoops. Or they go right back to the afternoon-TV nostalgia of their childhoods, recalling the Stooges as stupidly irresistible clowns, the most daffy and inviting of pain freaks ones who could make you laugh helplessly.
Then, however, there's that other level of Three Stooges fandom: the major-league mania, the kind that powers the Farrelly Brothers' startlingly fun and ingenious act of nuthouse homage/re-creation, The Three Stooges. For the true critically unhinged Stooges connoisseur (I have, at moments, been guilty of this level of adulation), it isn't enough to say that the Three Stooges put the low in lowbow comedy. For some of us, the Stooges had more than great timing or the ability to beat the hell out of each other in a viciously impervious and nimble style. They had a vision. They were oversize scallywag Munchkins who wove an entire comic universe out of fear, frustration, maniacal resentment, and borderline hysteria. Grouchy angels of dysfunction, they turned slapping, bashing, and humiliating into a weird form of connection. They were brothers united in slapstick torment.
A lot of what makes the Stooges' comedy work, especially in their vintage films of the '30s, is that their finger-in-the-face brutality is so loopy and spontaneous that it's like watching the live-action version of a super-violent Tex Avery cartoon. As directors, Bobby and Peter Farrelly revive those routines with a sensational, meticulous fidelity, but spontaneity is, by nature, a hard thing to re-create. For a while, you almost can't help but experience the movie in a slightly detached way, as an extraordinary carbon copy of a bygone comedy era. At an orphanage, where we first meet the Stooges as little rascals, their ''Hell-o! Hell-o! Hell-o!'' heads-in-the-doorway fanfare seems a little forced, and the casting of Larry David yes, Larry David as the ultimate dour, sexless nun, Sister Mary-Mengele, is one of those Farrelly stunts that calls so much attention to itself you're not quite sure if it's funny or just meta-funny.
But once the Stooges grow up and go out into the world, the movie starts to jell in a fluky, original way. The Farrellys have taken the bowl-cut ringleader Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), the Bozo-haired sad sack Larry (Sean Hayes), and the light-on-his-toes oaf Curly (Will Sasso) and plunked them down in 21st-century America, where a babe (Sofia Vergara) and her boyfriend (Craig Bierko) lure them into a plot to murder the babe's husband (Kirby Heyborne). (They think they're getting $830,000 for the job and plan to use the money to save their old orphanage.) The contemporary setting turns out to work incredibly well, because it lends a fresh, hip vitality to the Stooges' violence. ''I thought I told you to smother him!'' barks Moe at Curly, standing near the man in a hospital bed who they've signed on to kill. ''I am!'' says Curly, holding an onion and a vegetable peeler, ''I'm smothering him in onions!'' ''''Ehhh,'' growls Moe, ''good thinking, Emeril!'' as he takes the peeler and applies it to Curly's skull. ''I'll tweet you,'' says someone to Curly a little later on. ''Oh, tweet us to dinner? Soitenly!'' Bits like that do more than revive the Stooges' idiocy they give it flava.
And so do the actors. All three of the leads get very close to the Stooges' old looks and personalities, but they do more than impersonate; they inhabit. Sean Hayes, in his monstrously ugly frizz-mop (the subject of many a droll and bewildered putdown), does wonders with Larry's lost-puppy stare and syrupy voice; he makes him a touching, trusting dupe, the kind who will never be fast enough to outthink Moe's open hand. Chris Diamantopoulos captures Moe's '30s back-alley toughness and his super-fast brainiac rhythms, though a part of me wishes that he'd been even more of a scowling pill. If anything, he's a touch softer than the real Moe. But Will Sasso, as the greatest of all the Stooges, the infantile genius Curly, not only looks the part to an eerie degree. He also magically channels Curly's terror, joy, dog-barking displaced aggression, and ''Woo-woo-woo!'' insanity. His rubber face stretches in a millisecond from a cringe of pain to a squint of befuddled disgruntlement, and he uses his big body like a tubby ballet dancer who doesn't so much suspend gravity as ignore it. When Moe, Larry, and Curly, standing on a theater stage, finally go at it in an all-out way, whacking each other like there's no tomorrow, the violence is so catchy and free-form it's almost jazz: a bebop trio of sadomasochistic slapstick.
How funny is The Three Stooges? I confess that I chuckled in amusement more than I laughed out loud. It's an enchantingly well-done tribute that revives, and even refreshes, our affection for the Stooges, yet at its core it lacks the completely and totally unhinged shock of the new. That's true even when Moe ends up as a reality star on Jersey Shore, a joke that sounds brilliant in theory but that, to me, actually took the movie out of Stooges land. Then again, the one thing I couldn't do in watching The Three Stooges was experience the Stooges' routines in a way that a new generation might. Will this movie, playing to young viewers who don't know the Stooges at all, look off-puttingly old-fashioned or so bizarrely slapstick-intense that it seems as up-to-the-minute in its comedy as anything from Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell? I honestly have no idea. But should they go to see it? Soitenly! A–