*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Katherine Heigl, Jed Rees
screenplay by Ricky Blitt
directed by Barry W. Blaustein
by Walter Chaw There are a couple of fascinating things embedded in the premise and execution of Barry W. Blaustein's Farrelly Brothers-produced The Ringer, the story of Steve Barker, a broke cubicle monkey who tries to do the right thing and ends up trying to rig the Special Olympics by impersonating a mentally-challenged athlete. One is the notion that it's easier to feign retardation to the non-challenged than it is to the challenged; and the other is that, in taking Barker's "Jeffy" at face value, there's actually less offense in this broad play for sentimental, slapstick chuckles than in the Oscar-winning/aspiring pieces (Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, Rain Man) Steve uses as research. "There's the secret," a habit-clad Kate Winslet confides to Ricky Gervais in the brilliant debut of his new show, "Extras". "If you want an Oscar you have to play a mental."
Alas, the "normals" in the audience are indeed able to parse out the non-mentally-challenged actors in the cast portraying the disabled without them being "found out," thus at least a part of the viewing experience involves a game of "spot the bad comic actor" vs. "mark the genuinely disadvantaged." It's interesting from a moral standpoint in that the picture doesn't seem one-hundred-per-cent invested in its own democracy. The possibility for a searing indictment of the way that disability is exploited in Hollywood for middlebrow pleasure and uplift is the greatest casualty of this intellectual timidity, of course, and more's the pity: talk about a sacred cow, ripe for the tipping.
Why not make the film about how Steve/Jeffy falls for a mentally-challenged girl, forcing him to reassess his whole value system (à la the Farrellys' own Shallow Hal and obesity)? Alas, The Ringer sees our hero becoming infatuated with volunteer Lynn (a post-"Roswell" but pre-"Grey's Anatomy" Katherine Heigl), she in short-shorts and coach's whistle and he in high-water athletic shorts, she dating the wrong guy and he, as Jeffy, privy to her boyfriend's infidelity, and so on and so forth. The love story is obscenely rote--and once the disabled discover Steve's secret and--since Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), the champion he's there to usurp, is a real, grade-A piece of work--decide to help him out anyway, the picture devolves into your basic underdog sports uplift intrigue. (Too, the depiction of Jimmy ironically runs perilously close to a racist frieze of a black athlete.) It's Akeelah and the Bee with less spelling.
Stoking the picture is Brian Cox as Steve's horrifying Uncle Gary, whose casually-expressed views on "'tards" explodes the tension every few minutes. He's a straw man (or set up as such, anyhow), but because he has the most charisma and honesty of anybody here, we gravitate towards him. The problem is that we like that he says what he says, seeing as how he's the only thing really entertaining thing on screen--effectively reserving the film's biggest laughs for the bold, politically-incorrect skewering of the mentally-challenged. What bothers me a little is that this appears to be the intended outcome, marking in stark relief the way in which The Ringer vacillates between its carefully-manicured self-righteousness and its willingness to hit below the belt (literally) for quick release.
Fox ushers The Ringer to DVD in an unofficial "Special Edition" featuring 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen transfers on opposite sides of a flipper, the crisp, clear image matched by full DD 5.1 audio. (For a comedy, there's a surprising amount of atmospheric noise, especially during the crowd scenes.) Extras-wise, the widescreen side opens with a trailer for Thank You For Smoking, which demonstrates in just a couple of minutes how a film like The Ringer could have been more successful (that is, by showing people to be opportunistic, self-obsessed assholes). Peter Farrelly, Knoxville, Blaustein, screenwriter Ricky Blitt, and challenged actors Edward Barbanell and John Taylor reunite for a film-length commentary that, in typical Farrelly fashion, is obsessed with providing pointless shout-outs to ancillary cast and crew before going the extra mile of singling out who was actually challenged and who was pretending. The Special Olympics' support of the film is stated and restated, and Knoxville offers his trademark cackle. Make no mistake: it's a waste of time. Sixteen deleted scenes are more of the same equivocal garbage--faint hopes that there might be something genuinely disturbing in this batch of outcasts are submarined within the first minute. Turning the disc over fires up that ridiculous anti-piracy PSA (always ineffectual, it feels like extreme hubris on a movie like The Ringer), and the film is burned herein in all its pan-and-scan glory--an option strictly for the would-be Jeffys out there.
"Let the Games Begin, A Look at The Ringer" (6 mins.) finds an unusually bellicose Peter Farrelly lamenting that people misperceive his pictures and acting pissed off about it for whatever reason. The chip on the shoulder is unbecoming and his assertion that this thing is "a beautiful thing" that will make the Special Olympics "very, very proud" strikes me as every bit as unbecomingly patronizing as the film itself. I'm a fan, don't get me wrong, but this sense of evangelical, holier-than-thou saintliness turns my stomach. Cox comes on board to affirm that there was never the intent to offend the Special Olympics, while Knoxville offers the party line that The Ringer is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Poignant, maybe, is the observation that the audience for Knoxville's "Jackass" is the very audience that needs a little sensitivity training--better would be the question of whether the picture succeeds in deflating bigotry or, more likely, giving the jerk-offs of the world a cluster of disabled people to laugh at. Meanwhile, a "Special Olympics Featurette" (3 mins.) is a tear-jerking PSA for the Special Olympics does what The Ringer attempts to do in a fraction of the time. Rounding out the package, "A Message from Tim Shriver: Special Olympics President" (2 mins.) is one of those corporate rah-rah vids usually kept safely intra-office. Originally published: May 24, 2006.