Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Ringer

THE RINGER (Barry W. Blaustein, 2005)

In desperate need of money, nice guy Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) consents to his uncle Gary’s (Brian Cox) contemptible plan to rig the Special Olympics in THE RINGER. Gary’s bookie is a big fan of Special Olympic champion Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), so Gary figures he can talk him into making a bet that someone will knock off the longtime king of the track. By his reasoning, Steve should have no trouble winning.

Full of self-loathing for what he’s going to do, Steve poses as Jeffy and qualifies in the pertinent events. Complications set in when he develops feelings for Special Olympics volunteer Lynn (Katherine Heigl) and the other athletes see through his act. They agree not to reveal who he is because they want to see Jimmy, the cocky, posse-surrounded, ladies man, get his comeuppance.

Whether as producers or directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly's films specialize in finding humor in subjects and people usually considered off limits. They've produced a laugher about the fear of unwittingly committing incest (SAY IT ISN'T SO, easily the worst film with which they've been associated) and directed comedies about conjoined twins (STUCK ON YOU), the obese (SHALLOW HAL), and multiple personality disorder (ME, MYSELF & IRENE). The initial impulse is to believe they’ve finally crossed the line of good taste as executive producers of THE RINGER, but anyone familiar with the Rhode Island-based filmmakers knows that they are involved with the disabled community and don’t intend to make these people the objects of derision. The Special Olympics even gave their approval. That’s not to say THE RINGER isn’t without its uncomfortable moments or that no one will laugh for the wrong reasons--the audience I was in had more than a handful whose reactions indicated they missed the film's point--but the heart is in the right place.

Content aside, there’s also some controversy whether the SOUTH PARK boys or THE RINGER screenwriter Ricky Blitt came up with the idea first—an episode of the Comedy Central series features Cartman pretending to be intellectually disabled so he can compete in the Special Olympics—but that’s a matter for the entertainment lawyers. The question here is if THE RINGER succeeds on its own. It does.

THE RINGER’S humor stems from how it challenges stereotypes and reveals how foolish the ignorant characters are. The joke is on people like Steve and Gary, who think that they can learn to fake disabilities by studying FORREST GUMP, RAINMAN, I AM SAM, and the collected works of Chevy Chase. Steve's ridiculous adopted name of Jeffy and his exaggerated mannerisms show him to be the dumb one.

We truly are laughing with the Special Olympians, not at them. Many of them appear in THE RINGER alongside professional actors and look to be having a great time showing people that they aren’t as different from those that conventional wisdom consider normal. It isn’t a stride forward for the portrayal of women, but when a female Special Olympian emerges from a pool and gets the full slow-motion sex siren treatment, it feels like some kind of milestone in mainstream cinema has been passed.

Some are sure to be offended no matter how good the intentions are, and there are times when laughing may also evoke guilt for doing so. The difference in THE RINGER is that there’s a lot of sweetness to go with the outrageousness, a hallmark of the Farrelly brothers’ films. There’s not a trace of condescension or pity for the Special Olympians but real affection.

Johnny Knoxville is perfectly cast as Steve. Considering all of the jackass things he’s done on his way to fame, his presence in THE RINGER helps the film challenge the idea of what is normal and what is intellectually disabled. Cox says many of the worst—and the funniest—things in the movie with gusto. As intellectually disabled Glen, Jed Rees (an actor perhaps most recognizable as Chuck in ELIZABETHTOWN) scores many laughs. Flowers, a Special Olympics champ off-screen, rips it up as the arrogant Jimmy.

Positive social messages are nice, but THE RINGER wins because it is a very funny movie. Even though on occasion you might feel ashamed for laughing, when’s the last time a comedy made you consider what you should and shouldn’t find funny and gave you this kind of insight into the experiences of those unlike you?

Grade: B

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