Laurel and Hardy

Why The Three Stooges Movie Failed to Leave a Lasting Impression

A look back on 2012's The Three Stooges film from the Farrelly brothers, and why audiences seldom remember the forgotten flop.

In the early part of the previous century, a vaudeville stage show was being performed, helmed by show runner Ted Healy and depicting the wild and unpredictable antics of three odd gentlemen. Many iterations and some cast member changes later, The Three Stooges as we know them were introduced to the world, with Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard as the leads.

After decades of work and 190 film shorts, The Three Stooges were beyond a household name, with their inimitable brand of simple stories as a basis for nonstop slapstick comedy. With such a distinctive style and tone (or more importantly to studio heads, brand recognition) it was only a matter of time before the reboot bug bit the Stooges. Having two lifelong fans Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly directing, it seemed to be that this particular project was in good hands, though with a glaring lack of attention on the 2012 misfire these days, why exactly did everyone quickly forget about The Three Stooges movie? To best look at what went wrong, it may help to first cover what actually went right.

A Stooge-Like Send Up

The Three Stooges
20th Century Fox

While the film was being pitched to, and denied by, several different studios hoping to find a home, actors who would be chosen to portray the three leads were also in a state of limbo. After landing at 20th Century Fox, the choices for the Stooges were rumored to be Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, and Jim Carey, with Carey even agreeing to put on the weight necessary to play Curly. Though not certain, this may have been the cast pitched by the studio out of fear that the nearly 100-year-old brand may not be enough to sell tickets in its own, and would need a strong cast to carry it. Despite this, arguably the film’s biggest saving grace was delivered, with the Farrelly brothers choosing instead to hire three actors who could bring the characters to life much more authentically — Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso.

Whatever critiques may justifiably be lobbed at this film, it would be a hard sell to convince others that the actors did not do an excellent job portraying The Three Stooges. Capturing the mannerisms, vocal tone, speed and looks of the original trio extremely well, it’s clear to see where the biggest strength of the movie lies, and thankfully it’s exactly where it should.

While no one will be able to wear these roles more appropriately than the original Stooges, the attempt made here is clearly one as calculated as it is inspired. Watching the 2012 Stooges bounce off of each other trading pokes, jabs, slaps, and name-calling is nearly as fun as the originals made it look. Whenever the film takes time to make this the focus, it can be a delight, with even its parodies of outdated practical effects techniques (such as using obvious dolls as stunt doubles) garnering some laughs. The main cast and effects are usually where praise for this movie ends; unfortunately, that’s for good reason.

Pointless Celebrity Cameos

Moe Howard and cast of The Jersey Shore in The Three Stooges
20th Century Fox

The plot of the film centers around the titular Stooges growing up in an orphanage never being adopted only to eventually, as adults, be tasked with saving the very same orphanage from financial ruin. While a quick synopsis can make the story seem quite simple, it’s confusingly complex when put into action, due in part to the copious amount of needless side characters and forced celebrity cameos. If you were told this film had a 20-minute long sub-plot about Moe joining the cast of The Jersey Shore, would you have found that to be appropriate given the source material? If the answer is no, you’ve identified the major thing holding the movie back.

It’s clear to see that the fear the studio may have had about a lack of interest was now coming out in the supporting cast, with a seemingly endless injection of celebrities as side characters, hoping to muster up attention despite the fact that almost all the major actors chosen just didn’t fit the Stooges’ identifiable style. It doesn’t need to be said why a pointless detour with the cast of The Jersey Shore is a complete misstep for a Three Stooges adaption, but with other stars like Sofía Vergara, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson and Kate Upton all feeling bland and forced into the film with parts that don’t compliment their abilities, it adds up to be more a cast of big name cameos rather than talented character actors who could sink into their roles, something the original Columbia Pictures shorts managed to capture nearly a century prior.

A Perplexing Plot with Miserable Marketing

The Three Stooges
20th Century Fox

Despite seeming simple when summarized, the plot of The Three Stooges has more problems with it outside its supporting cast. A lot of the film’s runtime is spent with the Stooges trying to get enough money to save the orphanage, but rather than focusing on the humorous ways they could go about it, they instead get roped into a confusing murder plot involving a childhood friend, Moe breaking off from the group and becoming a reality TV star, and an extremely rushed and half-baked sub-plot around an orphan reuniting with their lost sibling. Long gone are the days of simplicity, with all the Stooges needing to be funny being throwing pies and poking eyes.

The movie is also confusingly broken into three parts, with classic Three Stooges inspired title cards introducing each act as if they’re individual stories. Though this directly contradicts itself as a stylistic choice due to it being one big plot instead of three smaller ones, causing these title cards to feel unnecessary. Being a feature length film, it’s clear that the story would need a bit more meat on its bones to reach the run time, but with these title cards, it comes off like the intent was instead to have three smaller stories make up that run time, which would’ve been greatly preferred and closer to the original shorts in style. With an off-putting blend of both ideas, neither being fully fleshed out, the movie feels completely confused on what it’s trying to achieve.

Three Stooges 2012 movie
20th Century Fox

To top off these issues, The Three Stooges movie was also the recipient of one of the worst ad campaigns in recent history. There are a healthy amount of impressive, well choreographed slapstick sequences within the film, though in another example of completely misunderstanding the source material, the studio opted to instead heavily promote the inclusion of the celebrity supporting cast, making fans of the original Stooges write the movie off as a simple cash grab before seeing it.

Outside the commercials, a strange and embarrassing tie-in was made with the WWE, having the three leads come out on stage to fool around in character, only to bomb in front of the crowd due to their being hardly any crossover between their demographics. This, along with the culmination of all other mistakes made during production, only serves to show how reboots of beloved franchises should always be handled by those who understand and care about the source material. What the film gets right about the Stooges, it really nails, but in fear of losing an audience’s attention, the studio doomed the project to the very same fate they were hoping to avoid: losing interest and being completely forgotten.

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