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‘Three Stooges’ as funny as ever | 2½ stars

The Three Stooges were a comedy team not exactly known for restraint.

But what helps make the modern adaptation of “The Three Stooges” tolerable — and occasionally funny — is the self-control shown by filmmaking rabble-rousers the Farrelly brothers.

While most big-screen reinterpretations (“21 Jump Street,” for instance) amp up the sex, violence and profanity, this effort is pleasantly tame, especially compared to the Farrellys’ standard output such as “Hall Pass” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

It’s a PG-rated comedy appropriate for introducing the Stooges to a new generation of youngsters — as long as you think the cheek-slapping, eye-poking, scalp-sawing antics of the original trio were ever appropriate.

The brutish ringleader Moe, the Brillo-haired middleman Larry and the feral man-baby Curly are portrayed with gusto by TV actors who aren’t well-known — Chris Diamantopoulos was in the eighth season of “24,” Sean Hayes played neighbor Jack on “Will & Grace” and Will Sasso was a fan favorite on “MADtv” in the 1990s.

They admittedly deliver impressions more than actual characters, but they’re rather effective impressions. (Believe it or not, Oscar winners Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn were initially cast as Moe and Larry before dropping out.)

The film is basically a riff on “The Blues Brothers,” with the Stooges portrayed as outcast lifers in an orphanage run by nuns. Since being left on the doorstep as infants, the three have proven a constant thorn in the side of strict Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).

So when the orphanage faces an $830,000 debt that will lead to foreclosure, this unholy trio is not the primary choice to save it.

But Moe and company vow to somehow earn the money.

Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) commends them for being “pure of heart.”

“… and dim of wit,” Sister Mary-Mengele adds.

What follows is a comedy divided into 30-minute episodes, similar to the theatrical shorts the real Stooges made from 1934 to 1958. They use typical Stooge templates, with scheming criminals (Craig Bierko and Sofia Vergara) and fancy-schmancy dinner parties all subjected to their wrecking-ball shenanigans.

It’s hard to name a recent film that contains as much pure slapstick as “The Three Stooges.” It offers a smorgasbord of pratfalls, mock injuries, humiliations and general physical nonsense. (If Curly stands next to a lobster tank, you know it will be seconds before one of the briny creatures is clamped to an orifice.)

However, it wouldn’t be a Farrelly brothers project without a few curveballs. Their reality TV subplot is borderline genius. What cast members of a popular program most deserve to have the Stooges unleashed upon their lives? The Farrellys figure out the one certain to elicit the biggest audience reaction. It’s a visual gift that keeps on giving.

This by no means implies that the film delivers some subversive, hipster spin on the classic troupe. No, it’s still a lowbrow comedy that is all kinds of dumb. Yet is that any different from an original Stooges short?

Few performers remain as inherently divisive as Moe, Larry and Curly (we shouldn’t even mention Shemp). You either find them hilarious or puerile. The new film will do nothing to alter that perception. But for those who still laugh at a good nyuk-nyuk joke, this potential blockbuster — it’s scheduled to open in 3,400 theaters this weekend — is one more way to cultivate the Stooges’ comedic legacy.

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