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Ricky Stanicky review: Zac Efron leads a broad comedy that completely bungles its tone

Ricky Stanicky review: Zac Efron leads a broad comedy that completely bungles its tone

Around six years ago, director and screenwriter Peter Farrelly ditched the world of gross-out comedies (Shallow Hal; Dumb and Dumber; Stuck on You) in favour of glibly sentimental tales set in fraught periods of American history. Green Book, about segregation in the American South, remains the worst Best Picture winner in recent memory, while the Greatest Beer Run Ever, set during the Vietnam war, came and went with barely a whisper. With Ricky Stanicky, Farrelly tries to slide back into old habits only to end up stuck, tonally, halfway.

The Ricky of its title is a character dreamt up by three childhood best friends, Dean (Zac Efron), JT (Andrew Santino), and Wes (Jermaine Fowler) – an imaginary troublemaker they conveniently blamed all their juvenile pranks on. But they’re adults now. So, instead of Ricky giving them a free pass to menace society, he’s instead become the catch-all excuse they use to lie to their respective partners. After nabbing last-minute tickets to a concert, they fake the news that Ricky’s back in hospital; his testicular cancer has returned.

When the trio is finally, inevitably, forced to produce a real flesh-and-blood Ricky, they turn to a washed-up actor they met at a bar in Atlantic City: the X-rated rock-and-roll impersonator “Rock Hard” Rod (John Cena). Handing him the “bible” of Ricky’s fake life story, they pay him to impersonate the guy at a high-stakes social event.

It’s a conceit as broad and implausible as Me, Myself & Irene or There’s Something About Mary, yet for every scene of dogs doing it in missionary position or men pitching ketamine pills into their mouths, a character will, in a way that seems almost like they’re about to turn to the camera and lock eyes with the viewer, inform us that they’re an alcoholic or had a bad childhood. Good comedies, of course, can make the tragic feel bittersweet, but Ricky Stanicky bungles its tone to the point that the whole affair comes across a little depressing. It’s like watching a bedraggled widower perform close-up magic at his spouse’s funeral.

Lads lads lads: Jermaine Fowler, Zac Efron and Andrew Santino in ‘Ricky Stanicky' (Ben King/Prime)
Lads lads lads: Jermaine Fowler, Zac Efron and Andrew Santino in ‘Ricky Stanicky' (Ben King/Prime)

Part of the fault, certainly, lies in Ricky Stanicky’s screenplay. It’s been floating around Hollywood for the last decade and a half, with James Franco, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jim Carrey all considered for the Stanicky role. By now, it’s been credited to six different writers. There are several unresolved plot lines here – impressive given that this is a film featuring an extended sequence in which William H Macy, in the role of Dean and JT’s boss, is humiliated for gesticulating with his hands in a way that can only be referred to as “air-dicking”.

The film has the kind of cast that, typically, would be able to shoulder bad writing and carry the whole thing across the finish line. Farrelly claims he decided on Cena for the role about two minutes into an episode of DC’s Peacemaker series, and you can see the actor at least trying to bring a little of that same, deeply likeable mix of braggadocio and Bambi-like naivety.

It really should work, but it doesn’t – largely because editor Patrick J Don Vito cuts so frantically between everyone’s mildly bewildered reactions that Cena’s barely given enough screen time to deliver a punchline. Ricky Stanicky is an oddly assembled film, with a lot of dead air and shots that don’t line up. But, hey, there’s a scene where Cena does a surprisingly accurate Owen Wilson impression. So that’s something.

Dir: Peter Farrelly. Starring: Zac Efron, John Cena, Jermaine Fowler, Andrew Santino, Lex Scott Davis, William H. Macy. 15, 114 minutes.

‘Ricky Stanicky’ is on Prime Video from 7 March