Toilet humour top dogs Bobby and Peter Farrelly point their laser guns in the direction of Larry, Curly and Moe aka The Three Stooges, the popular knockabout slapstick outfit created in 1925, seven years after the end of World War I.
The dunderhead trio return with lookalike actors and the trimmings of primitive screen comedy lovingly reinstated, from simple sight gags involving ladders, bells, swimming pools and the like to campy hammer and saw comic violence punctuated by "boing," "donk" and "blam" retro sound effects.
Retrieving Larry, Curly and Moe from the dustbins of daggy nostalgia presents an immediate problem. How do you keep the spirit of the characters -- whose entire existences were based around tripping over, bonking heads and exchanging slaps and knuckle sandwiches -- while repackaging them for a different, skeptical, post 9/11 world where that brand of pea-brained humour lost its mojo decades ago?
The weird appeal of this movie is not the faithfully idiotic rendering of the titular trio but a cake and eat it too sleight through which the Farrellys, intentionally or not, have created a window into the kind of people these men would invariably be if they made a transition into the real (modern) world. Without actually saying it, and certainly without needing to, the Farrellys present the Three Stooges as grown men with severe intellectual disorders, blissfully ignorant of their impairments, immediately obvious to all and sundry.
If it weren't for the iconic series from which their pop culture gene pool originated, the Farrelly brothers would be criticised for making full throttle fun of retarded people in ways more extreme than the mental handicaps they've previously leveraged jokes on, such as Mary's brother in There's Something About Mary (1998) and Jim Carrey's multiple personal disorder in Me Myself and Irene (2000). Here they have perfect cover, using human relics from a past where humuor was less sophisticated and more earnest, and slipping on a banana peel was still a shoo-in crowd pleaser.
The Stooges big screen incarnation latches onto a familiar plot setup in which oodles of cash is required to save an orphanage/church/gym/dance hall/pub/club/farm/hair salon/sports team/whore house from being repossessed by the bank. The nun-run orphanage the three misfits have lived in since being turfed on the doormat as babies is in deep financial doo-doo, so they totter off into the outside world to bring home the bacon without any idea how they will do it.
The story tinkers on the precipice of a fish out of water concept, the proverbial water a fictitious context inside a historical context (comedy stylings from early to mid 20th century). The characters behave as they would way back then, in that brain dead genre, with that clownish animal-like manner; they literally bark at each other like dogs. It's like they are unwitting time travellers who somehow fell through a wormhole, like the silent film scientist who burst into modern life in Rolf de Heer's Dr Plonk (2007) or the Buster Keaton appearance in season three of a coyly anachronistic episode (Once Upon A Time, 1963) in the original The Twilight Zone series.
The Three Stooges tips into a more conventional grasp of culture clash when Moe stumbles into participating in a reality TV show (Jersey Shore, no less) in which his violent antics are not just condoned but encouraged and relished, like cultural breath mint to clear the throat of a postmodern landscape where accosting people by plucking nose hair and plonking heads together is at the very least a faux pas, even a jail sentence. The story slips and slides through modest set pieces and slapstick routines, not all of them very good, but the pace is consistent and the Farrellys and their three stars (Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos) nail an earnestly off-kilter mood.
If the premise doesn't appeal, or modern audiences discover that the Stooges were very much a product of their time -- and that time was mercifully short in the scheme of things -- viewers may be in for a shock. The Three Stooges is an experiment in forwards 'n' backwards thinking comedy likely to rub them in the wrong ways with the grace of a failed Biggest Loser contender attempting to give a back rub as they balance on a butter lathered medicine ball, taking bites out of a double whopper attached to a piece of string dangling from the roof while reciting the alphabet backwards. Which is to say, there's not a lot of grace in it, but there's plenty of laughs, and it's hard to imagine anyone other than the Farrelly's having the sort of manic chutzpah required to make it work.
The Three Stooges Australian theatrical release date: June 28, 2012. Opens in WA and ACT July 5, 2012.