By Steven Zeitchik
LOS ANGELES — “The Three Stooges,” directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, was not the box-office comeback the filmmakers hoped for.
It was supposed to turn out differently for the Farrelly brothers. Enduring a cold streak more intense than a Rhode Island winter, the New England filmmakers were supposed to change all that with “The Three Stooges,” an update they didn’t so much choose to make as believe was their destiny.
The pair watched the shorts, mouths agape, when they were children, fascinated by the effortless physical comedy of Larry, Curly, Moe and Shemp.
They began pursuing the rights as far back as 1996, a lifetime ago in commercial cinema. They made plans to start shooting, at the time with Warner Bros., all the way back in 2004.
With an iteration that at one point was to star Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro, a feature-length “Three Stooges” movie was to be the Farrellys’ opus. “We’ve thought about it for 12 years,” Peter Farrelly said last year. “I literally lie in bed thinking about every single shot. I’ve never been more prepared to do a movie in my life.”
But this past weekend showed that even a lot of desire and preparation can get you a little poke in the eye.
The movie didn’t flop. But with $17.1 million, the Fox release was far from even a decisive hit, beaten by a film, “The Hunger Games,” that was rapidly losing steam in its fourth weekend. Nor was the PG-rated “Stooges” — now starring Sean Hayes instead of Sean Penn — anywhere close to the kind of cultural event that you’d hope for with a decade-long project based on a classic property.
Audiences rated it only a so-so B-minus, and even generous critics said it was, at best, mindless fun. A not-small number agreed with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who called it “the death, burial, putrefaction and decomposition of comedy.” The movie received a dismal 41 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
How did this happen? Talking to the brothers last year, one got the sense that this was a duo more invested in the game than their last few efforts, “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Hall Pass,” might have suggested. Their passion was still there; so was the belief that they could still turn out a standout in the stunted-male-comedy environment they helped create.
But it turns out they’re lacking some other important ingredients. The Farrellys don’t have the novelty factor anymore — not when figures like Sacha Baron Cohen play the gross-out squirm card as well as they once did, not when Harold and Kumar and “Horrible Bosses” and a spate of R-rated offspring had been watching so carefully, not when Judd Apatow and his gang of proteges have been doing the sweet-raunch thing equally sharply and perhaps more timely (and with more fully realized female characters).
More to the point, maybe they don’t quite have the touch anymore. There was always an element of clever plotting in Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s movies — witness the devious chess match between the various suitors at the center of “There’s Something About Mary” — that wasn’t (and maybe would never be) in “The Three Stooges.”
And even their signature sight gags weren’t as prevalent as you’d expect. The most memorable scene in “There’s Something About Mary” was Cameron Diaz unwittingly walking around with a substance she thinks is hair gel. The most memorable in “Three Stooges”? Well, let’s just say there are a lot of objects coming down on a lot of bodies.
Some could argue, I suppose, that the unraveling of the Farrellys’ success is cultural, a function of young males no longer ruling the roost at the box office. But it’s hard not to point at a filmmaking team that, bopped on the head by a crop of competitors, has endured its own exaggerated, decade-long pratfall.