The film is composed of three acts, which are referred to as episodes (a reference to how the original Three Stooges short films were packaged for television by Columbia Pictures).
In 1977, the children at the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage are playing soccer with an old soda can in the front yard. But then, Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), the meanest nun in the orphanage gets their attention by telling them to go inside and do their work. The kids sing "Everybody is Special", but she tells them to shut up and go to work. Later, Moe, Larry and Curly are dumped on the doorstep of the orphanage as babies. Ever since, the trio have wreaked havoc in the place, leaving the nuns who run it utterly terrified, especially Sister Mary-Mengele who has always hated the trio. Ten years later, in 1987, out of desperation, when a prospective couple comes to adopt, the exasperated nuns bring out the trio as being the only three available, eventually adding a fourth when another boy, Teddy, enters the picture. The couple, the Harters (Stephen Collins and Carly Craig), decides to pick Moe, but when he requests Larry and Curly to join him, he is dropped back off at the orphanage, and they choose Teddy instead.
25 years later in 2012, the trio (Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso) are adults and are still living at the orphanage and working as janitors. Monsignor Ratliffe (Brian Doyle-Murray) arrives to give everyone an important message. After Monsignor Ratliffe tells Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) that the orphanage is going to close, she tells Sister Mary-Mengele to get the trio. Sister Mary-Mengele demands Mother Superior tell them who's responsible for the foreclosure of the orphanage, but Mother Superior tells her to just tell them what they need to hear. However, the three stooges injure Sister Mary-Mengele. They head to Mother Superior until they cause Monsignor Ratliffe to fall on top of the nuns. Monsignor Ratliffe gets attacked by Moe, Larry and Curly, who think that Monsignor Ratliffe was making out with the nuns. Monsignor Ratliffe is not going to adopt any of them either, as he is on official business. Curly says "Official business?! Why didn't you say so?" and they take off their blue worksuit revealing their shirts and shorts and present themselves to be adopted. When they are informed that the orphanage will be shutting down unless they can come up with $830,000 in 30 days, the trio volunteers to go out and try to raise the money somehow. Sister Rosemary (Jennifer Hudson) and the Stooges sing "This Little Light of Mine", but Sister Mary-Mengele tells them to shut up and tells them it is only an orphanage, not a revival. Some of the nuns think that the trio will not be able to succeed because the only people they know are nuns and kids, but Mother Superior thinks otherwise.
A subplot involves a woman named Lydia (Sofía Vergara), who wants to kill her husband so she can be with her lover, Mac (Craig Bierko), and inherit her husband's considerable fortune. She offers to pay the trio the money they need to take care of the job. They botch the job and leave the supposed husband (actually Mac) in traction in the hospital. When they try to visit to finish the job, they are chased by the cops throughout the hospital and escape by jumping off the roof using a fire hose. They end up running into a now grown-up Teddy (Kirby Heyborne), who invites them to his anniversary party. It turns out that Lydia is Teddy's wife. Their next scheme for raising the money has them selling farm-raised salmon, with them scattering salmon on a golf range and watering them like produce. When the same cops from the hospital came to arrest them, the trio are chased off the golf course and hide in an old building (getting in by using Curly as a battering ram), where they have a slapstick fight. Larry and Curly then scold Moe for not accepting Ted's adoption; they could have used his adoptive parents' wealth to help save the orphanage. Moe angrily yells at them by telling them that he doesn't care and also saying that he didn't need them After deciding to split up, they leave Moe alone. Then it turns out that they were all on stage in front of an audition crew who select Moe to be the newest cast member of Jersey Shore as "Dyna-Moe".
Larry and Curly are getting along well without Moe, but return to the orphanage, where they find out a girl named Murph is very ill, but has not been taken to the hospital because the orphanage has no medical insurance. Sister Mary-Mengele tells them that no one will insure the orphanage due to the trio's numerous accidents and injuries over the years, and the $830,000 is needed in order to cover medical bills that accumulated over the years. Sister Mary-Mengele blames the Stooges for causing the orphanage to close down. Larry and Curly later meet up with Ted's adopted father about what happened at his office. He confessed that Moe wanted him to go back for his friends to adopt them and he didn't want to so he gave Moe back and took Ted in his place. Then Larry & Curly discovers a picture of Teddy and Mr. Harter with Lydia & Mac and realize that Teddy is the husband Lydia wanted to murder. In addition to this, they feel guilty for rebuking Moe in not accepting the Harter's adoption and decides to go find him.
Meanwhile, Moe has been causing a lot of havoc on "Jersey Shore" by slapping the cast members around and not putting up with their spoiled antics. The cast go to the producer and tell him to kick Moe off of the show or they'll sue him. The producer then fills them in on the show is all about ratings...NOT them. Larry and Curly finally go to the set of Jersey Shore to reunite with Moe, and they all head to the anniversary party where they appear to thwart the murder plot, only to get chased by the angry Lydia and Mac after they accidentally ruin the wedding cake while saving a little girl's life. They discover that Mr. Harter was the real mastermind and Lydia was working for him. He married into the money and was incensed to find out the money was left to Teddy and not him when Teddy's mother died years earlier. They are taken for a ride, but the car winds up in the water when Curly's pet rat distracts them; then, they all escape when Curly passes gas, and they light it with "waterproof, strike-anywhere matches" they had, causing enough of an explosion to blow out the windows.
Once they are back on land, Mr. Harter, Lydia and Mac are arrested, and Teddy thanks the trio for saving him. When they request the $830K, he turns them down, stating he refuses to help the same orphanage that gave him up to a father that almost tried to kill him, among other things over the years.
A couple months later, the trio return to the now-condemned and abandoned orphanage, but as they start crying for feeling like failures, they hear kids laughing, swimming, and playing. When they investigate, they find out a whole brand new orphanage was built next door, complete with a swimming pool, a basketball court and a tennis court.
They soon learn that the money came from the Jersey Shore's producers who consider this as an advance payment in relation to a new reality show, Nuns vs. Nitwits, in which the entire trio will be part of. Murph is revealed to be perfectly fine, her illness due to too much iron in the water (which Larry had always suspected, yet no one listened to him), and that she, along with her brothers Peezer and Weezer (the latter thought to have been lost forever to a foster home), will be adopted by Teddy and his new fiancee, Ling (Emy Coligado). In the end, after causing one more incident (namely, Curly accidentally knocking Sister Mary-Mengele into the pool with a folded-up diving board as she says "I'm gonna mash your heads like potatoes!!"), the trio run away and bounce off trampolines out of the orphanage onto mules, where they ride away from the orphanage, off into the distance.
An epilogue consists of two actors (Antonio Sabàto, Jr. and Justin Lopez) playing Bobby and Peter Farrelly, explaining that the stunts were all done by professionals, showing the foam rubber props used in the film for the trio to hit one another, demonstrating the fake eye-poke trick (to the eyebrows), and advising children not to try any of the stunts at home.
During the end credits, a music video plays showing the Stooges and Sister Rosemary performing "It's a Shame", originally recorded by The Spinners in 1970, interspersed with excerpts from deleted scenes and a couple of brief outtakes. Though credited to "The Spinners and The Three Stooges", Hudson's own distinctive vocals can also be heard.Sean Hayes as Larry, the nearly smartest and most relaxed member of the Stooges.Lance Chantiles-Wertz as young LarryWill Sasso as Curly, the goofy and dim-witted member of the Stooges.Robert Capron as young CurlyChris Diamantopoulos as Moe, the aggressive and short-tempered leader of the Stooges.Skyler Gisondo as young MoeJane Lynch as Mother Superior, the head nun of the orphanageKirby Heyborne as Theodore J. "Teddy" Harter, a long-lost friend of the Stooges who they met at the orphanage.Stephen Collins as Mr. Harter, Teddy's adoptive father.Sofía Vergara as Lydia Harter, Teddy's wife.Craig Bierko as Mac Mioski, Lydia's lover and henchman.Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele, a nun at the orphanage.Jennifer Hudson as Sister Rosemary, a nun who works at the orphanage.Brian Doyle-Murray as Monsignor Ratliffe.Lin Shaye as Nursery Nurse, a nurse who works at the hospital.Caitlin Colford as Katilyn, a nurse who first notices the Stooges when they first come to the orphanage.Carly Craig as Mrs. Harter, Mr. Harter's elderly wife who adopted Teddy and leaves the entire inheritance to Teddy over her husband.Kate Upton as Sister Bernice, a nun at the orphanage.Marianne Leone as Sister Ricarda, a nun at the orphanage.Avalon Robbins as Murph, a sick girl at the orphanage who is a friend of the Stooges.Max Charles as Peezer, Murph's best friend and a friend of the Stooges.Reid Meadows as Weezer, Peezer's brother; adopted by TeddyEmy Coligado as Ling, Mr. Harter's counselor and eventually becomes Teddy's 2nd wife.Isaiah Mustafa as Ralph, a producer for Jersey Shore.Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi as herself.Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino as himself.Jennifer "JWoww" Farley as herself.Justin Lopez as Peter Farrelly, Bobby's older brother and co-director of the Film.Antonio Sabàto, Jr. as Bobby Farrelly, Peter's younger brother and co-director of the film.Ronnie Ortiz-Magro as himself.Samantha "Sweetheart" Giancola as herself.Dwight Howard as himself, a basketball player who teaches at the new orphanage.
Development and writing
Conundrum Entertainment's Bradley Thomas became attached to The Three Stooges around 2000 with Columbia Pictures. In March 2001, Warner Bros. bought the feature rights from C3 Entertainment and Peter and Bobby Farrelly became involved. They along with co-writer Mike Cerrone completed the script in mid-to-late 2002 and began shopping it. In 2004, with no talent being attached to the project, their rights expired and it was acquired by First Look Studios and C3 Entertainment. In November 2008, MGM boss Mary Parent picked up The Farrelly's Warner Bros. scripts and the rights from C3 Entertainment, and was given a budget of $40 million with a release date of November 20, 2009. In March 2009, after struggling with casting delays, the release date was pushed to 2010, but the filmmakers still did not have a cast set. In November 2010, MGM filed bankruptcy and the following month the project was taken over by 20th Century Fox in hopes to have released the film in 2011.
The Farrellys said that they were not going to do a biopic or remake, but instead new Three Stooges episodes set in the present day. The film was divided into three segments with a stand-alone story, each being 27 minutes long. The Farrellys aimed to receive a PG (Parental Guidance) rating from the MPAA, while still incorporating physical comedy. In Britain several images were cut before the film achieved the equivalent rating. The Farrellys have also said it would have "non-stop slapping, more in the tone of Dumb and Dumber than we've done. Our goal is 85 minutes of laughs in a film that will be very respectful of who the Stooges were. It's by far the riskiest project we've ever done, without question, but it is also the one closest to our hearts."
In March 2009, Benicio del Toro and Hank Azaria were in consideration to play the lead role of Moe Howard. The role of Moe went to Chris Diamantopoulos. Sean Penn was already set to play Larry Fine but dropped out to concentrate on his charitable efforts in Haiti. Sean Hayes was chosen to play Larry. Jim Carrey was set to play Curly Howard and gained 40 pounds for the role but ultimately dropped out because of not wanting to endanger his health gaining 60 to 70 pounds. The role went to Will Sasso. Johnny Knoxville, Andy Samberg and Shane Jacobson were all on the short list to play Moe, Larry and Curly, respectively. As the Farrellys note in the DVD/Blu-ray featurette on casting the picture, Sasso was cast as Curly despite being considerably taller than the other Stooges (the original Curly was roughly the same height as Moe and Larry).
In December 2010, Richard Jenkins was in talks to play Mother Superior in the film. In February 2011, Cher was considered but Jane Lynch secured the role. Larry David plays another nun in the film called Sister Mary-Mengele, a character named after the infamous Nazi doctor. Sofía Vergara was cast as Lydia. Stephen Collins was cast as Mr. Harter and Carly Craig as his wife, Mrs. Harter. The cast of Jersey Shore (Nicole Polizzi, Michael Sorrentino, Paul DelVechhio, Jennifer Farley, and Ronnie Ortiz-Magro) have cameos in the film.
On a reported budget of $30 million, principal photography started on May 9, 2011, in downtown Atlanta, Georgia and wrapped on July 20, 2011. Scenes were shot at the Fairlie-Poplar Historic District around 5 Points Sports Building on the corner of Peachtree St., Edgewood Ave., and Decatur St. on the evening and night of May 13 and wrapped the next day. On May 26, filming took place at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. Other locations included Piedmont Park, Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital, Zoo Atlanta, and Colony Square. In June, production moved to Cartersville and shot scenes near Woodland High School. After the cast of the Jersey Shore arrived on July 18, 2011, they shot scenes at the Atlanta Civic Center. During the last two days of filming, scenes were shot at an Ansley Park home. Filming concluded on July 22, 2011, at the Miami Seaquarium, a popular marine life park in Florida, capturing a scene in their dolphin tank.
To promote the film, Diamantopoulos, Hayes, and Sasso appeared as the Stooges on WWE Raw on April 9, 2012. They acted in several scenes, the first with Santino Marella, before later taking to the ring where they were booed by an infuriated crowd before Sasso, dressed as Hulk Hogan, received a chokeslam by Kane.
On its opening weekend in US, The Three Stooges earned $17.1 million and debuted second behind The Hunger Games. The film has grossed $54,819,301 in the box office, and at least $23,875,651 through US home video sales.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 51% based on reviews from 142 critics; the average rating is 5.4/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "While nowhere near as painful as it could have been, The Three Stooges fails to add fresh laughs to the Stooges' inestimable cinematic legacy." Metacritic gives the film a score of 56 out of 100, based on reviews from 26 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Despite the mixed reviews, Diamantopoulos, Hayes, and Sasso were praised for their performances as Moe, Larry, and Curly.
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter described it as "[A] funny, good-hearted resuscitation of Hollywood's beloved lowbrow lunkheads", while Manohla Dargis of The New York Times lauded the film as a "thoroughly enjoyable paean to Moe, Larry and Curly and the art of the eye poke". Spill.com gave the movie a fairly good review, insisting that the movie is great for families, and hardcore Stooge-fans will not be disappointed. They also went on to praise the actors for their portrayal of the Stooges, saying the likeness was uncanny, and perhaps even Oscar-worthy. Roger Ebert gave the movie 2½ out of 4 stars, stating "The Farrelly brothers have made probably the best Three Stooges movie it's possible to make in 2012, and perhaps ever since the Stooges stopped making them themselves." Some critics however complained about the forced pop culture references such as cameos by Jersey Shore cast members which were presumably done to ensure the movie would have youth appeal and not simply be a nostalgia trip for older audiences.
Betsy Sherman of The Boston Phoenix gave it 3 out of 4 stars, saying it was "funny and faithful", and added that the film contains "stories that could have graced [the Stooges]' 1930s shorts (raise money to save an orphanage, stumble into a greedy wife's plot) onto the present and imagine how they'd interpret modern concepts (farm-raised salmon)".
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine gave it 2 stars out of 4, commenting that "the movie is a mixed bag. 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. For the Farrellys, The Three Stooges is a labor of love. For non-believers, it's merely a labor." Travers also praised the cast, stating "The actors deserve a full-throated woo-woo-woo!" adding that "Hayes, Sasso and Diamantopoulos do themselves and the Stooges proud."
Bill Wine of KYW Newsradio 1060 in Philadelphia commented that "no one's going to confuse The Three Stooges with a transcendent movie anytime soon, but the Farrellys do capture and reproduce the anarchic spirit and uninhibited essence of the Stooges—soitenly and poifectly, as the Stooges would put it—and remind us why they had such a hold on some of us in decades past. The three leads are expert mimics—especially Hayes...they acquit themselves admirably..."
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League anti-defamation organization, released a statement condemning the movie for its disrespectful portrayal of Catholics, specifically nuns. Donohue pinpointed a scene in the film involving two unusual nuns, portrayed by swimsuit model Kate Upton and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David. Both are potential causes for offense for different reasons, as Moviefone reported: "In Stooges, David portrays Sister Mary-Mengele. The name is a nod to the late Nazi Josef Mengele, an SS Officer who decided prisoners' fates at Auschwitz. As for Upton, it's not so much her character's name—Sister Bernice—as it is her attire. During one scene, the SI swimsuit model dons a very revealing bikini along with a large rosary around her neck."
The cast of Jersey Shore were each nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screen Couple for their work on the film, but lost to Mackenzie Foy and Taylor Lautner for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.
The film received a nomination for worst film of the year by the Houston Film Critics Society.
The Three Stooges was released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17, 2012. The release includes behind-the-scenes featurettes, a screen test featuring the three lead actors testing out a scene later reshot for the movie, and a selection of deleted scenes. Of note is the inclusion of the theatrical trailer which, as mentioned above, contains numerous differences compared to the final film.
On May 7, 2015, a sequel was announced, with Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso all reprising their roles. Cameron Fay has been hired to write the script. It will begin production in 2018.