Producers: Paul Currie, Thorsten Schumacher, John Jacobs and Michael De Luca   Director: Peter Farrelly   Screenplay: Jeff Bushell, Brian Jarvis, James Lee Freeman, Peter Farrelly, Pete Jones and Mike Cerrone   Cast: Zac Efron, John Cena, Jermaine Fowler, Andrew Santino, Lex Scott Davis, Anja Savcic, Jeff Ross, William H. Macy, Debra Lawrance, Heather Mitchell, Daniel Monks, Apple Farrelly, Bob Farrelly, Jane Badler, Marta Kaczmarek, Jackson Tozer, Nathan Jones, Ryan Shelton and Jim Knobeloch    Distributor: Prime Video

Grade: D

If the aphorism that one should steal from the best is at all valid, there must be corollary that if you do, you should make sure the expected comparison will not be fatal.  In coming up with the script for “Ricky Stanicky,” Peter Farrelly and his cohort of collaborators clearly went to one of the greatest of all comic sources: Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” arguably the funniest comedy ever written in English. in it Algernon explains the concept of Bunburying—inventing a fictitious friend one can use as an excuse for something you’ve done or are planning to do, in the process not only avoiding blame but also appearing dutiful and upright by tending to the illusory fellow.  It was a great idea back in 1895, and still is.  But its use by Farrelly and company proves so wretched that their movie amounts to a criminal affront to Wilde’s genius, even worse than Oliver Parker’s 2002 bastardization of “Earnest” was.           

The creators of the fake title character are Dean, Wes and Oscar.  As youngsters (played by Ricky Stiles, Gaius Nolan and Oscar Wilson), they fingered the phony kid for a disastrous Halloween prank, and now as sort-of grown-ups (played by Zac Efron, Jermaine Fowler and Andrew Santino), they remain best buddies who have continued to employ Stanicky to get out of unwelcome social obligations and justify bro getaways.  Just like Algernon’s Bunbury, Ricky is a sickly dude, and they must always leave to minister to him, even as he supposedly leads the life of the world’s greatest globe-trotting do-gooder.  They maintain a “Bible” of all Ricky’s past activities to keep everything straight.

But the long-running pretense goes awry when they get free ducats for a Marc Rebillet concert in Atlantic City and use the return of Ricky’s supposed cancer to heed encouragement from Dean’s TV reporter girlfriend Erin (Lex Scott Davis) that they skip a baby shower for JT’s wife Susan (Anja Savcic) to go and be with him in an Albany hospital.  While there they meet a lounge performer called Hard-Rock Rod Rimestead (John Cena), whose act consists of elaborate masturbation-themed performances of pop songs.  After allowing Rod to cadge a drink from them, they shoo him away, but not before Dean takes his card.

On returning home, they find that Susan has unexpectedly given birth, and that once they found that all the guys had their phones turned off, she and Erin had contacted all the hospitals in Albany, only to discover that there was no Stanicky in any of them.  Dean lamely explains that Ricky had lied about the return of his cancer to get them to join him in a celebration of the fifth anniversary of its remission, so JT’s skeptical mother-in-law Leona (Heather Mitchell), doubting Ricky’s existence, insists they invite him to the baby’s Bris.  Desperate to avoid telling the truth, Dean suggests they hire an actor to pretend to be Ricky, and Rod’s name comes up.  Anxious for a gig since he fears he’s being pursued by mob debt collectors, he agrees, insisting he’ll lay off booze and drugs for the duration. 

Having assiduously studied the boys’ Bible Rod not only convinces everyone, even Leona, of his identity, but exhibits astonishing knowledge in many areas: he even finishes the circumcision when the rabbi (Jeff Ross), who’s been accidentally drugged (don’t ask), can’t.  And Rod/Ricky so impresses Mr. Summerhayes (William H. Macy), Dean and JT’s boss in the investment game, that he hires the guy and turns over the management of an important merger—Dean’s responsibility—to him.  Dean’s furious, but naturally by the end all secrets are revealed, forgiveness is the order of the day, and everything turns out fine for everybody—except for JT, whom Susan exiles to the backyard for six months because of his deception.

The movie wants to recapture the cutting-edge, transgressive feel of the early comedies Farrelly made with his brother Bobby, but the result comes off as a desperate attempt by a middle-aged man trying to act young again.  The whole business of Rod’s nightclub act is cringe-inducing, though Cena gives it his all—as he does everything in the script.  He’s the sparkplug of whatever genuine comedy there is here; Efron and Santino are reduced to feeble mugging, while Fowler is wan as the third member of the trio, a gay man uncertain of the support of his partner (Daniel Monks) until, of course, Rod gives him good advice about his hoped-for career writing children’s books.  (Rod, of course, turns out to be everyone’s perfect advisor, and his fears about mobster pursuers turn out, in a final throwaway, to amount to nothing.)  But the drug references—to steroids and ketamine among other things—seem tasteless rather than amusing, and testicular cancer isn’t exactly a laugh riot, even it turns out to be of the made-up variety.

The supporting cast, like Cena, mostly go the high-octane route, with frantic results.  That’s particularly grievous in the case of Macy, a fine actor confronted by material, including a concluding bit about sexually explicit hand gestures, that’s really beneath him.  Farrelly has taken a leaf from Adam Sandler’s playbook by casting his kids in lesser roles: Apple plays Erin’s cousin Carly, who gets interested in Rod, and Bob plays Todd, a bartender in Atlantic City.  The movie—with a production design by Gary Mackay, costumes by Katherine Milne, and cinematography by John Brawley—has a glossy sheen, while editor Patrick J. Don Vito uses sprightliness to try to camouflage the shallow quality of it all and composer Dave Palmer aims to add some bounce to the leaden proceedings.

But it all amounts to a losing effort.  In lunging for the edgy raunchiness of his early work, Farrelly instead comes up with a moldy imitation of it.  Go back to the original, the evergreen wit of Wilde that Farrelly can only dream of.