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‘Ricky Stanicky’ Review: John Cena Can’t Save Peter Farrelly’s Insipid Imaginary Friend Comedy

If you look back at motion picture history you’ll find it’s marked with suspiciously similar films being released, coincidentally or not-so coincidentally, around the same time. You probably remember “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” or “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano.” Go back further and you’ll find “Jezebel” and “Gone with the Wind,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe,” and “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” The list goes on, but this phenomenon seems to have finally peaked in 2024 because I don’t think we’ll ever have another set of twin films like “Dune: Chapter Two” and “Ricky Stanicky.”

Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic is an ambitious religious allegory about a false messiah cynically invented to enrich his creators, who takes on a life of his own. He inspires people and lives up to his legend, for better and for worse, complicating the lives of his puppeteers. Believe it or not, Peter Farrelly’s “Ricky Stanicky” is about the exact same thing, except this isn’t an ambitious sci-fi epic; it’s an R-rated bro comedy. The only thing epic about it is the number of masturbation jokes.

Our saga begins in 1999 when three kids accidentally set fire to a neighbor’s house on Halloween. Afraid of getting caught, they frame a kid who doesn’t exist named “Ricky Stanicky.” The gambit works so well that for decades they blame all their worst crimes on Ricky, and adults always believe them. They created a devil to excuse their sins.

Fast forward 25 years and Dean (Zac Efron), JT (Andrew Santino) and Wes (Jermaine Fowler) have grown up. Dean has a wonderful girlfriend, JT has a wife and a child on the way, and Wes has a boyfriend who supports him financially. Ricky Stanicky has “grown up” too and evolved from a makeshift devil into a god, complete with his own bible that catalogues his complex mythology.

Dean, Wes and JT can’t blame Ricky Stanicky for their screw-ups anymore, but the modern, saintly version of Ricky still provides the perfect excuse for their selfish behavior. They ditch JT’s baby shower at the last minute to go to Atlantic City and get blitzed, telling their families it’s because Ricky’s cancer — oh yeah, Ricky survived cancer — has come back.

But while they’re gone, with their phones off so they can’t be tracked, JT’s wife goes into early labor. Their loved ones tried so hard to track the trio down that they called every hospital and found out there is no Ricky Stanicky. So, instead of coming clean, they double down and say Ricky is fine, he just pranked them for a bro’s night out and now they have to produce the “real” Ricky Stanicky or their cover story is blown for good.

There’s a lot of set-up. It’s an extremely contrived premise that took six credited writers to hash out the plot, and it shows. The plot finally kicks in when Dean, JT and Wes realize there’s a solution to their problem: “Rock Hard” Rod, an X-rated novelty performer they meet in Atlantic City. He’s an out of work actor they took pity on at a bar by making casual conversation and buying him an appetizer. Now he’s willing to play Ricky Stanicky for a few hours to trick their family into thinking their creation is genuine.

“Ricky” studies their bible and lives up to its teachings, impressing Dean, JT and Wes’s family and co-workers. But he does such a good job that they want to see more of him, and before long the only people who don’t love Ricky Stanicky are the people who invented him. Chaos ensues.

Rod, who is such a committed character actor that he legally changes his name to Ricky Stanicky, is played by John Cena. Here’s the thing about Cena: It is impossible to hate him. He literally holds a world record for granting the most wishes at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He’s also a pretty good actor, lacking in nuance but utterly sincere, and his puppy dog energy is the only thing that makes “Ricky Stanicky” work — on the rare occasions when it sometimes does.

“Ricky Stanicky” has everything you could possibly want from a comedy except for funny jokes. The cast is game, the concept is wacky. It’s directed by Peter Farrelly, returning to broad comedy after winning two Oscars for “Green Book” (and also making “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” not that anybody noticed). But the film’s plot is so convoluted that the characters spend all their time talking about that, and very little time being human, or god/Ricky forbid, amusing.

Aside from a baffling sequence where a duck almost drowns a dog there aren’t a lot of comedic set pieces in “Ricky Stanicky.” The centerpiece is at a bris, where our protagonists accidentally roofie the mohel, and it’s up to Ricky to do the job of a religious leader. It works thematically, but when taken literally this movie somehow thinks it’s funny that a newborn baby might get seriously injured by a man with a blade who, by the way, is also going through shaky alcohol withdrawals. What whimsy! What “fun.”

Peter Farrelly’s film never flat-out says it’s about religion, but it’s about a guy who studies a bible, turns his life around, performs a religious ceremony, and — since this is one of the nearly infinite comedies about whether or not an elaborate lie will be revealed — saves his friends through the act of confession. “Ricky Stanicky” literally ends with a “False Idol” joke. It’s subtle in the way “Dune: Chapter Two” is subtle — that is to say, not at all — and with a scene where someone’s hair gets stuck in a bowling ball return.

It would be nice to report this elaborate comedic allegory about how the ends arguably justify the means is intelligent, funny, heartwarming or anything particularly good. But it’s not funny — only about half a dozen jokes truly land — and it’s too committed to being insipid to make the most of its themes. Even the trademark Farrelly “heartwarms,” which elevated raunch like “There’s Something About Mary” into feel-good classic status, seem half-hearted.

“Ricky Stanicky” has one quality that very few broad comedies have, or even bother to strive for: It’s interesting. It takes a farcical premise and tries to find something meaningful to say about it. It doesn’t succeed, but the effort is worth analyzing and worthy of comparison to a timeless work of sci-fi fiction. In any case, I guess the spice must flow. Or at least the dick jokes.

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