‘Ricky Stanicky’ gives John Cena and Zac Efron a chance to flex their comedy muscles

Playfully letting John Cena flex his comedy muscles, “Ricky Stanicky” works from an amusing premise that owes an unlikely debt to a 51-year-old “MASH” episode, in which an imaginary character must be brought to life. Also serving as a reunion of Zac Efron and director Peter Farrelly, the execution yields an only fitfully funny R-rated comedy, a genre that’s found a receptive platform via Amazon.

Like seemingly all friendship-based comedies, this one begins with a flashback, as a trio of boys get into trouble and desperately blame what happened on “Ricky Stanicky,” a made-up kid.

Jump to the present day, and Dean (Efron) along with his pals JT (“Dave’s” Andrew Santino) and Wes (Jermaine Fowler) are still invoking the name – in much the way “MASH’s” Hawkeye did with “Captain Tuttle” – although here, mostly to get away for guys weekends or escape situations they’d rather avoid, such as a baby shower. Feeling smug about the ruse, they wryly toast Stanicky as “The best friend we never had.”

As it happens, their latest juvenile escapade takes them to Atlantic City, where they meet an odd lounge-entertainer type who goes by the name “Rock Hard” Rod (Cena), right before the ruse blows up in their faces. Forced to produce Stanicky after using him as their excuse, Dean has the bright idea of hiring Rod to portray Stanicky at a bris for JT’s baby.

Not surprisingly given the film’s below-the-belt bent, a circumcision gag follows, while Rod has to vamp his way through all the fabulous attributes the trio have ascribed to Stanicky through the years.

Although Rod has dutifully studied the “bible” they’ve assembled, that sets up plenty of highly awkward moments to keep misleading both their romantic partners and Dean and JT’s boss (William H. Macy, getting into the silly spirit).

After winning a much-debated Oscar with “Green Book,” Farrelly collaborated with Efron on another streaming movie, 2022’s “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.” “Ricky Stanicky” shifts closer to the sort of raunchy comedic fare for which Farrelly was known when working with brother Bobby on movies like “There’s Something About Mary.”

Usually crediting a script to six writers (Farrelly being one of them) isn’t a particularly good sign – and the film does have a sitcom-writers-room feel about it – yet there are some reasonably good laughs peppered throughout, as well as a darker, more serious side about Dean’s difficult childhood that feels too incongruous with the movie’s overall tone.

While edgier comedies have found the sledding fairly difficult at the box office of late (“Anyone But You” being a notable exception), Amazon has exhibited a fondness for the genre, including the recent Snoop Dogg vehicle “The Underdoggs.”

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cena has smartly taken advantage of his tough-guy physique to carve a path into broad comedy, from the DC series “Peacemaker” to “Blockers,” “Trainwreck” and “Playing with Fire.” “Ricky Stanicky” might be imaginary and doesn’t measure up to its promise, but in terms of that basket within the wrestler-turned-actor’s filmography, it at least fits Cena like a glove.

“Ricky Stanicky” premieres March 7 on Amazon’s Prime Video. It’s rated R.

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