THE FARRELLY Brothers have said they wanted the title characters in their updated "The Three Stooges" to be hyper-accurate reproductions of the legendary slapstick performers.

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Right down to the accents. And since Stooge Larry Fine was a Philadelphia guy (the Howards hailed from Brooklyn), the Farrellys wanted an actor who could mimic his accent — I guess the hair was the easy part.

They cast Sean Hayes, best known for his role on TV sitcom "Will and Grace," and certainly nobody's first choice to play Larry, but give Hayes his due — maybe the best thing about "The Three Stooges" is Hayes' eerily pitched recreation of Fine's unique voice. Anyone can get poked in the eye, but what Hayes does here is impressive.

In fact, the actors who play the Stooges (Chris Diamantopoulos is Moe, Will Sasso is Curly) all do a startling job of mimicry. The problem is that you feel the Farrellys' attention to detail may have gotten in the way of the larger mission — to create a workable movie around the central performances.

My hunch is the Farrellys took their writing cues from "The Blues Brothers," a notably successful attempt to take characters from short-form comedy and fill a big screen. They've borrowed the basic premise — Moe, Larry and Curly on a mission to save a Catholic orphanage (run by Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson and, believe it or not, Larry David in nun drag) by raising nearly $1 million (the movie is set in the present day, and shot in color).

They hook up with a femme fatale (Sofia Vergara) who offers them money to kill her husband, all building to a Three Stooges finale — the Stooges invading an invitation-only party attended by rich swells, wreaking their infamous havoc. The movie approaches the execution of classic Stooge material in these big, slapstick scenes, and manages to build momentum as it goes along.

But the movie gets off to an excruciating start — a long prologue featuring child versions of the adult Stooges, as the Farrellys build a labored backstory detailing the boys' history at the orphanage. It's more "Little Rascals" than "Three Stooges," and doesn't do much to honor the memory of either troupe.

"The Three Stooges" may be too reverent for its own good — the movie really comes to life only when the Farrellys loosen the reins and toss in a freewheeling subplot about Moe turning up on the set of "The Jersey Shore." Here, Moe's unmatched gift for insults, for sadistic punishment, is put to the best possible use. n

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.


The Three Stooges

directed by the Farrelly Brothers

WITH Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso Produced by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas and Charles B. Wessler, written by the Farrelly Brothers and Mike Cerrone, distributed by 20th Century Fox


RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

showing at: area theaters