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Review: John Cena shines as Zac Efron’s imaginary friend in ‘Ricky Stanicky’

Peter Farrelly returns to his comedic roots with an irreverent comedy post-‘Green Book,’ delivering some easy outrageous laughs, but ultimately falling short of the ribald humor found in his earlier work like ‘There’s Something About Mary.’

RICKY STANICKY, from left: Jermaine Fowler, Zac Efron, Andrew Santino, 2024. ph: Ben King /© Amazon Prime Video /Courtesy Everett Collection

Directed by Peter Farrelly, “Ricky Stanicky” follows the antics of best friends Dean, JT, and Wes, who have long used their imaginary friend Ricky as a scapegoat for their misadventures. However, as their significant others grow suspicious, the trio decides to hire an actor to portray Ricky. The film marks a raunchy, R-rated return to Farrelly’s comedic roots, reminiscent of his work on “Dumb and Dumber.” Wrestler John Cena delivers a standout performance in the title role, showcasing his comedic chops. Despite Farrelly’s recent foray into more serious films like “Green Book” and “The Greatest Beer Run,” “Ricky Stanicky” demonstrates his enduring penchant for irreverent humor and dick jokes.

The Prime Video release of “Ricky Stanicky” is aimed at a specific audience, including not just bros but also women who enjoyed “High School Musical” and are intrigued by Zac Efron’s departure from his Disney Channel persona. Efron’s portrayal of Dean, a far cry from his earlier roles, involves deception and questionable behavior, such as lying to his girlfriend and attempting to drug a rival.

Dean, along with his friend JT and Wes, has developed a sophisticated system over the years to cover up their misdeeds by blaming them on their imaginary friend, Ricky Stanicky. This system includes strict rules, a detailed “bible” documenting their fabricated adventures with Ricky, and a fake Instagram account portraying Ricky as a philanthropist. However, their loved ones are becoming increasingly skeptical about Ricky’s existence, especially since nobody has ever seen him in person.

John Cena enters the scene as a washed-up actor the trio meets in Atlantic City. Performing as “Rock Hard” Rod, he sings “jerk jams,” which are familiar tunes twisted into wildly inappropriate parodies. These off-color cover versions stand out as one of the film’s most outrageous moments, although the movie often shies away from fully committing to its potentially offensive humor. Cena’s performance shines, particularly when Rod hits rock bottom, dressed in full Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” drag, trying to drink spilled whiskey off dirty cardboard in a back alley. Cena proves himself to be the movie’s MVP with his comedic prowess.

While John Cena has delivered solid supporting performances in Judd Apatow productions like “Trainwreck” and “Blockers,” his luck with leading roles has been mixed. Thus, his role in a Farrelly comedy is quite a coup. While theoretically any actor could have played Ricky Stanicky, Cena’s performance makes it impossible to envision anyone else in the role. He embraces the character’s larger-than-life persona while also portraying vulnerability and sincerity.

Director Peter Farrelly, known for “There’s Something About Mary,” has always had a soft side, and while he doesn’t shy away from extreme humor (such as mining jokes from a ceremonial bris), the film doesn’t aim to offend. Instead, it celebrates uniqueness, exemplified by its inclusive casting sensibility—a trademark of Farrelly’s films.

In “Ricky Stanicky,” inclusivity is highlighted with the inclusion of a gay man on crutches and a short-statured millionaire in the ensemble, both portrayed without sensationalism. However, the film also includes characters for comedic effect, such as two follically challenged individuals. First is Dean and TJ’s investment banker boss (played by William H. Macy), who undergoes a hair transplant, humorously referred to as “seedlings” by Ricky. The boss’s embarrassing hand gestures, dubbed “air dicking,” become a memorable gag in the film. On the other end of the spectrum is Carly, mockingly called “Cousin Itt” by the guys due to her excessively long hair. Carly, portrayed by Apple Farrelly (the director’s daughter), eagerly anticipates meeting Ricky after following his Instagram profile, believing he has been saving the world with Bono.

The trajectory of the film becomes apparent early on, as it exudes affection for outcasts. However, the potential for comedic situations is never fully realized, evident from the opening scenario where the boys blame Ricky Stanicky for a fire that ultimately causes no irreversible harm. As adults, the trio are depicted as despicable characters who have spent years deceiving their loved ones. Andrew Santino doesn’t hold back in portraying TJ as a jerk, but Zac Efron and Jermaine Fowler hedge their performances, as the film relies on their characters being easily forgiven once the truth is revealed.

The ending falls short in its attempt to redeem the ensemble, who have been depicted as naive for not questioning the inconsistencies in the Ricky Stanicky story. However, the film successfully explores the idea that Dean, TJ, and Wes have hindered their own maturity by clinging to this lie for so long. Their performances reveal variations of the man-child syndrome, showing how Ricky Stanicky served as an excuse for their worst behavior while preventing them from truly growing up. Ultimately, the film serves as a lesson in the true meaning of friendship.

“Ricky Stanicky” will be available for streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting March 7th.

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