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The Ringer

If you ever watched Jackass, it would seem that fate intended for Johnny Knoxville to star in a film like The Ringer. An old hand at doing things to make him look stupid, the prankster turned actor easily fits the part of a guy stupid enough to try to rig the Special Olympics. At least, that's the impression you'd get on paper.

Surprisingly, the script by Ricky Blitt (a Family Guy writer and producer) tries very hard to make Steve (Knoxville) into a too-nice guy backed into a very tasteless decision. Allegedly a loser all his life, Steve listens to motivational tapes and works up the courage to ask for a promotion. When his first task is to fire Stavi the Janitor (Luis Avalos), Steve buckles and hires him to be a gardener instead, with disastrous results.

So Steve needs money, fast. And his ne'er do well Uncle Gary (Brian Cox - we chew up and destroy fine Shakespearean actors in America) needs to get out of debt to his mobbed-up bookie. Their needs collide, getting inspiration from the greatest Special Olympian, Jimmy. The athlete gets a lot of endorsements for being a five time Special Olympic Champion, but Gary figures he would be easy for Steve to beat.

Of course, this means we have a life lesson coming on, and one that is actually pretty valuable. The Ringer has the endorsement of Special Olympics, and it's very clear why. In fact, the 16-year Special Olympian playing Jimmy, Leonard Flowers, has been on a box of Wheaties just like character. Many of the actors here do have inspirational stories. But the movie keeps turning treacly out of deference to its subject, when we could have learned the lesson and still had a few sharp jokes.

Though only produced by the Farrelly Brothers, The Ringer falls into the trap of most of their work. It takes a concept that we expect to hit low, and then tries to elevate it by playing nice when things might be getting too dark. Director Barry M. Blaustein (Beyond the Mat) clearly had their playback to follow.

Knoxville's attempts to create a mentally challenged character are an effort to have cake and eat it, too. He runs through several offensive stereotypes before settling on the good-natured Jeffy, who speaks in the third person and walks with a slight hunch.

The ruse doesn't work long, as a group of other athletes quickly figure out that his speech patterns are inconsistent when he gets annoyed with them. They go along with it, though, because Jimmy is a jerk, and they want to see him taken down a peg.

It's a nifty reversal, but Blaustein and Blitt have trouble working with it. Despite his presence as the antagonist, Jimmy never really rises as someone we should dislike. Sure he's cocky, but only once does he actively dismiss another character. So what if he recognizes that saying "I'm going to Disneyworld" is a cliché? That doesn't make him a villain; it does possibly make him a better writer.

The script never really tries to work out its problems; instead, it just glosses over them. We never see any consequences to the things that happen here, because this comedy refuses to acknowledge pain with an epilogue so trite that it almost destroys any goodwill the rest of the film built.

By the way, it does have some. Knoxville really has risen above being an MTV idiot, and can hiss lines like "they're my FRIENDS" with conviction. He's also not above a good pratfall, and he takes them like the pro he is.

In one clever scene, posing as Jeffy, Knoxville runs into an old high school buddy. The guy can't tell the difference between Jeffy and the Steve he knew years before - the only really subtle point-making the script does.

Somehow Knoxville even makes the strange romance between "Jeffy" and the Special Olympics volunteer Lynn (Katherine Heigl) dance on the verge of plausibility, and he shows that he knows the consequences even if the film refuses to acknowledge them.

The actors playing the Olympians also have good timing. If nothing else, some of the lines are bound to pop up as sound bites. In and out of context, they're funny.

Unfortunately, it's hard to get around the disrespect the film shows us. Though Heigl plays Lynn with vivaciousness and apparent sensitivity, the idea that she (or anyone else society considers "normal") can't figure out Knoxville's ruse is just insulting. The Ringer has the noble goal of proving that mentally challenged doesn't mean dumb. Too bad it has to treat us as dumb to do it.

P.S. - Yes, there's a lawsuit threatened between the makers of The Ringer and the South Park guys, because a couple of years ago Cartman tried to rig the Special Olympics. Do not hate The Ringer for allegedly ripping off Parker and Stone. The Farrellys have had this script in development for years, and the announcement that this was on their docket came before the South Park episode. But truth be told, Parker and Stone did it better, because they're not afraid to offend in the service of making us laugh.


Derek McCaw

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