Chris Diamantopoulos (left), Sean Hayes (center) and Will Sasso star in "The Three Stooges."

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Peter Travers: The Farrelly present a trio of Stooges shorts set in the present

Travers: Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos do the Stooges proud

Travers: "The Three Stooges" is a mixed bag. A theme runs through all three shorts

Rolling Stone  — 

There’s an idea at play in this rampant idiocy, as well as considerable risk.

In trying to introduce a new generation to the slapstick art of the Three Stooges, directors and co-writers Bobby and Peter Farrelly do it the hard way. Instead of a standard biopic that might explain how a 1930’s vaudeville act called the Three Stooges – brothers Moe and Curly Howard and their friend Larry Fine – made their Hollywood mark with nearly 200 short films that featured the boys slapping, poking and punching each other senseless, the Farrellys decided to hit the 2012 multiplex with a trio of Stooges shorts set in the present.

Kids know the short clips on “Funny or Die,” don’t they, even if they never caught the Stooges online or DVD. And besides, audiences with short attention spans are bigger than ever. And if the Farrellys couldn’t cast their movie with lookalikes, they would find three actors willing to be silly putty in their mischievous hands. And so, to play Larry, skilled clown Sean Hayes (“Will and Grace”) transforms himself by shaving his head down the middle, letting prickly tufts of Larry-like hair protrude on the sides.

As baldy boy Curly, “Mad TV’s” Will Sasso steps up with the needed rolypoly charm. And to play Moe, the bossy ringleader of Stooge domination, there’s Greek-born Chris Diamantopoulos with a bowl cut and Brooklyn accent (“Soitenly”) that is Moe to the life. Once Sean Penn had designs on playing Larry, as Benicio del Toro had on Moe and Jim Carrey on Curly. But Hayes, Sasso and Diamantopoulos do themselves and the Stooges proud.

The movie is a mixed bag.

A theme runs through all three shorts. The Stooges, abandoned at birth at a Catholic orphanage, must now save the place from being closed in an economic turndown. They need $830,000 to save the kids and the nuns, including Mother Superior (Jane Lynch playing a straight man), Sister Bernice (Sports Illustrated model Kate Upton), Sister Rosemary (Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson) and, most memorable of all, Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David in full drag and crankier than ever).

The plot gets overcomplicated when the villainous Lydia (“Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara), offers to pay the Stooges what they need to off her nerd husband, Teddy (Kirby Heyborne), a former orphan himself. The actors deserve a full-throated woo-woo-woo! But the gags don’t blossom with repetition. The Stooges were always better in short doses. And 90 minutes of PG nyuk-nyuk-nyuk can seem like an eternity. Even when Moe hooks up with the cast of “Jersey Shore,” this century’s bottom-feeding purveyors of lowbrow comedy, the jokes grow stale. For the Farrellys, “The Three Stooges” is a labor of love. For non-believers, it’s merely a labor.

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