I don’t want to begrudge anyone their guilty fondness for Moe, Larry, and Curly, but really, honestly, what the fuck is wrong with you? Watching grown men beat the shit out of each other with no real consequence, either physical or emotional, is downright tedious. They have basically four moves in their arsenal — slap, eye gouge, head knock, and nose-hair pluck — each modified scene-to-scene with variations on the same knyuck knyuck. Comic brilliance, it is not. Call me a buzzkill douchebag, but I’m not even sure why it’s even considered comedy. It’s not funny when Ben Stiller does it to himself, and it’s not funny when three live-action cartoons do it to each other.
The joyless banality of The Three Stooges can’t even be blamed on the cast (Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso), each of whom does a remarkable job of inhabiting the original Stooge characters. The simple-mindedness of the story, the doltish themes, and the overacting are all hallmarks of the classic Stooges. The Farrelly Brothers do a competent job of updating the Stooges for the 21st century while maintaining whatever it is about the Stooges that someone, somewhere must have loved at some point. Why? I don’t have a fucking clue. There’s no narrative that makes The Three Stooges funny. Comedy, even physical comedy, needs context; there’s no setup for the Stooges. They don’t lay the foundation; they don’t wind-up; it’s just assault-as-punchline over and over and over, like a knock-knock joke that always ends in violence.
The Three Stooges is broken up into three, connected vignettes, or acts. The first takes place on an orphanage, where the biggest source of comedy is in watching Larry David play a nun. (See, it’s funny because he’s a man.) Moe, Larry, and Curly wreak havoc on the orphanage, they fail to get adopted, Jane Lynch’s Mother Superior practices patience, and 25 years later, Jennifer Hudson’s Sister Rosemary sings as the Stooges go out into the world to raise $830,000 to save the church and all the orphans.
In the second act, a wealthy housewife (Sofia Vergara) and her lover (Craig Bierko) try to trick the Stooges into killing the housewife’s husband, and after that fails, the third act follows the lover and wife attempting to kill Larry and Curly while Moe gains recognition as a new character on “Jersey Shore.” It’s as funny as it sounds, which is to say: Not at all. The “Jersey Shore” sequences are actually the highlight of the film because at least there’s some fish-out-of-water context with which the Stooges can play against.
Look: Comedy of violence can be hilarious. The Farrellys demonstrated that with There’s Something About Mary. It can even be funny in family films: Home Alone, for instance. But in those cases, there was context. There were repercussions. Ben Stiller got his nuts caught in a zipper before prom, an experience that haunted him for decades. Macaulay Culkin vanquished a couple of thieves and saved his home. In The Three Stooges, there’s no glue holding anything together. It’s just an endless series of slapstick episodes. In the film’s signature sequence, for instance, the Farrellys use urinating infants as weapons — the Stooges hold them up and spray each other with baby piss. That’s not even a funny concept, and less so when there’s no point to it. Moreover, comedy of violence relies heavily on reaction: The actual kick in the nuts is not as funny as the setup - the reason why it is happening, the trying to get out of it, the look of agonizing horror on the victim, but in The Three Stooges, reactions are limited to blasé ouchies. “You just took a chainsaw to my skull. That was annoying. Hey! Look! That woman is wearing a low-cut blouse.”
There’s no wit. There’s no depth. Nothing is actually going on. It’s rapid-fire low comedy, face slaps, boob jokes, and puns that would make Gene Shalit blush. I’m sure there’s a reason that the Three Stooges have endured for decades, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. What’s funny about slapstick when used in other comedic settings — “I Love Lucy,” The Marx Brothers, Monty Python — is that it trades on something true. They wind up old tropes, superstitions, situations and exaggerate them, extract the ever-living farce out of them. The Three Stooges don’t trade on anything; they just hit each other. It isn’t funny because it isn’t true.