The premise for "The Ringer" just sounds wrongimmoral, potentially very offensive and horridly misguided. After all, how could a film about a man who tries to earn some much-needed cash by rigging the Special Olympics and pretending to be mentally disabled be anything but a disastrously mean-spirited affair? The key to debunking these heavy suspicions is the involvement of producers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, two of the most heartfelt and supportive filmmakers working today of the handicapped and disabled. Along with director Barry W. Blaustein (1999's "Beyond the Mat") and screenwriter Ricky Blitt (TV's "The Family Guy"), they have achieved the impossible, taking a non-PC topic and making it the source of a gentle, fair-minded comedy that even the Special Olympics has welcomly endorsed.
Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) is an eager-to-please sap who can't bear to say no or see others suffer. That's why, when forced by his boss into firing diligent janitor Stavi (Luis Avalos), Steve ends up instantly offering him a new job as his lawn mower for even more pay. When a mowing accident severs three of Stavi's fingers, but he is unable to afford to have them reattached, Steve must find a way to collect the money needed for the operation. Enter Uncle Gary (Brian Cox), a die-hard gambler with a debt to pay to some bookies, who convinces Steve that the only way to get the money they need in such a short period of time is to join the Special Olympics and slaughter the competition. He has some trepidations at first, but soon former aspiring actor Steve is running with his new role, making friends with his competitors, and trying to keep the truth a secret to the committee. He also finds time to fall in love with the beautiful Lynn Sheridan (Katherine Heigl), a kind-hearted volunteer worker who would be perfect for Steve if he wasn't lying to her about his identity and hiding an ulterior motive.
"The Ringer" has been promoted as a raucous comedy, but while there are a fair share of humorous moments, it isn't a laugh riot. Also, outside of the novelty of its general plot, the film's path is one that can be easily predicted. If originality isn't exactly one of its selling points, the picture does succeed at being well-meaning without being preachy, and having a good heart. As Steve spends more time with his competitors as they prepare for the Olympics and gets to know them as friends, they are portrayed as real people with individual personalities and senses of humor rather than mentally disabled caricatures. Indeed, the only character who is set up to be mocked is Steve himself, and for obvious reasons.
Johnny Knoxville (2005's "The Dukes of Hazzard
") has had a rough time parlaying his fame from TV's "Jackass" into an acting career, and his winning performance as Steve is the first time he has managed to really stand out as worthy of being in the movies. Steve makes a poor decision in deciding to fool to Special Olympics committee in the first place, but it is for a virtuous purpose, and the character is never demonized. Knoxville is charismatic and natural in the part, his sheer presence helping to make him a likable protagonist.
He also works quite well with Katherine Heigl (2001's "Valentine
," TV's "Grey's Anatomy"), exhibiting an irresistible sweetness as love interest Lynn, who has become a volunteer following the death of her own mentally handicapped brother. Their relationship is a platonic oneshe is supposed to be a mentor to him, and already has a fiancé in David (Zen Gesner), who is secretly cheating on herbut a rooting interest develops quickly for these two to get together, despite the major hurdle of Steve posing as a Special Olympics athlete. Of course, it is only a matter of time before the truth is revealed, and the way Lynn reacts to the discovery is written and performed in an authentic way that dodges mawkishness. The thankless character of her current beau who is really a bad guy is also handled with a lighter, less over-the-top hand than usual, and really, David is much less an unbelievably monstrous human being than, say, the one in 2005's hateful "Wedding Crashers
So "The Ringer" isn't a great motion picture, or a prestigious one, or even a very memorable one. Nonetheless, director Barry W. Blaustein has treated a difficult, potentially blasphemous subject with a level of intelligence and warmth that couldn't possibly have been guessed from the bad-taste trailers. When "The Ringer" was over, my world hadn't changed, but there was a smile that remained on my face. In its beneficial portrait of "don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover" tolerance, all within the framework of a featherweight, enjoyable comedy, the film spreads a brand of good cheer ideal for the holiday season in which it is being released.