Sexy Sister Bernice (Kate Upton) stuns stooges Curly (Will Sasso), Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) and Larry (Sean Hayes) © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox

As subtle as a two-fingered poke in the eye and as sophisticated as a slap in the face, this silly 21st century Stooges simulation has a lot of laughs and even some unexpected heart. While it’s strange to see the lookalikes causing mischief in today’s iPhone and Jersey Shore world, the original Stooges’ slapstick spirit definitely survives the transition.

That’s because directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who cowrote the screenplay with Mike Cerrone, are good at recreating the cartoonish calamities, wince-worthy assaults, obnoxious insults and groanworthy puns that are Stooges trademarks. They even manage to give the guys some human sensitivity without ruining the ridiculousness.

The Stooges also get an origin story. A speeding car tosses a duffel bag on the front steps of an orphanage run by nuns. Inside are baby versions of the Stooges, complete with each member’s distinctive haircut. Ten years later, the three boys are unholy terrors prone to misbehavior such as practicing forced dentistry on the permanently furious Sister Mary-Mengele (a hilarious Larry David in drag, stealing every scene in which he appears).

Sister Bernice (Kate Upton), Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), Sister Rosemary (Jennifer Hudson) and Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David -- yes, Larry David) discover that four nuns are no match for Three Stooges © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox

Jumping forward another 25 years, the adult versions of Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) are still at the orphanage, working as the world’s worst handymen. None of the nuns — who also include singing Sister Rosemary (Jennifer Hudson), sexy Sister Bernice (Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover model Kate Upton) and the ever-tolerant Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) — have aged a day, which is a funny sight gag in itself. But the bigger yucks come from things like a classically over-the-top scene in which the Stooges accidentally drop a church bell on Sister Mary-Mengele, ram her cranium into a fire hydrant, throw the business end of a sledgehammer into her face and fall on her from a roof. That’s entertainment!

All three actors playing the Stooges give Vegas-worthy impersonations and look the parts, especially Sasso as a virtual twin of the original Curly. Hayes deserves special mention for perfectly replicating miserable Larry’s distinctive half-whining voice. As Moe, Diamantopoulos has a flair for noggin-knocking, nose grabbing and general abuse.

Hearing that the orphanage needs $830,000 in 30 days to keep from being shut down (shades of The Blues Brothers), the Stooges go forth into the outside world for the first time to try raising the money. Their services are enlisted by the scheming and spectacularly shapely Lydia (Sofia Vergara), who wants them to murder her husband. In a funny spin on a film-noir plot, Lydia’s lover (Craig Berko) says he is the husband, telling the Stooges he wants to be killed because he has a terminal illness. But don’t turn on the lights, he adds, because he wants it to be a surprise.

Cascading incidents of merry mayhem include a hospital scene that features one of the only inappropriate contemporary updates to the Stooges’ traditional brand of abusive but clean comedy. An extended nursery bit in which the Stooges use several powerfully urinating babies as water-pistol-style weapons against each other is more gross-out than goofy. Thankfully, matters don’t escalate to poop flinging.

The rest of the movie is full of more traditional pratfalls, punches and poinks, complete with classic sound effects that are perfect for every painful but preposterous predicament.

Noteworthy supporting players include a sassy-sweet orphan girl named Murph (Avalon Robbins) and her surrogate little brother Peezer (Max Charles). Kirby Heyborne is the Stooges’ guileless friend Teddy, and several actual Jersey Shore cast members are part of Moe’s strange destiny.

Also, be sure to stay through the end credits for a Three Stooges and Jennifer Hudson version of Stevie Wonder’s “It’s a Shame” that’s actually pretty good!

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

The Three Stooges opens in US and Canada in theatres on April 13, 2012. Australia release is June 28, 2012. UK release is July 20, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson