The Ringer (2005)
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The Ringer looks like the type of film that might test the bounds of political correctness, and at times, it does. For the most part though, this is a surprisingly sweet film and much of the credit for that should go to those nutty Farrelly Brothers who produced the film. The Farrellys have walked that fine line between offensive and tender before, and with The Ringer they're up to their old tricks.
In The Ringer (jackass-turned leading man) Johnny Knoxville plays Steve Barber, a kind-hearted underachiever whose unselfish ways get him in a bit of a scrape. When an unforeseeable accident occurs, Steve and his greedy con man of an uncle (a hilarious Brian Cox) must come up with a way to raise some quick cash. Uncle Gary suggests that Steve pose as a specially challenged athlete so that he might fix the Special Olympics. After endless prodding, Steve agrees to do the unthinkable, so after a little research (at the hands of Forrest Gump and The Best of Chevy Chase) Steve reluctantly becomes Jeffy Dohmer (yes, you read the name correctly), a Special Olympics hopeful with a heart of gold. The entire story smacks of a truly inspired (if a tad mean spirited) episode of South Park, but rest assured this has a much sweeter tone.
While the plot to The Ringer does indeed sound patently offensive, it really isn't. This film is cast with many individuals who really are mentally challenged (including Edward Barbanell and John Taylor), and thanks to these guys' wit and charm, we're never laughing at them, we're laughing with them. I didn't think they were funny because of how they looked or talked, I found them funny because of what they were saying. These are funny dudes and smart to boot (it is, in fact, these specially challenged athletes who discover Jeffy's true identity). I also admired the Ringer because of it's focus on what these challenged individuals "can" do, not what they can't. Such is the case in some of the Farrelly's other work (see "Stuck on You" or "There's Something About Mary").
The plot quite often plays like a sort of Adam Sandler vehicle (Sandler must have been busy so they cast Knoxville instead) and we've seen the "con man" storyline in countless other films (most recently in Wedding Crashers), but The Ringer works more often than not because of it's sweet center and the great big heart that it wears so unabashadly on it's sleeve.
Knoxville has yet to become a confident performer. He's not what one might call an actor of great range and every time I see him in a film, I think "Jackass." I was pleasantly surprised here, however, because by the second act he'd settled in quite comfortably. Of course it helps that he was surrounded by a lively bunch of performers to bounce off of. Of the entire group it is Jed Rees (for those wondering, he is not specially challenged), who comes off as the most annoying. This actor (who sort of resembles Jack Black) has appeared in numerous films including Galaxy Quest and most recently, the disappointing Elizabethtown. His portrayal of Special Olympian Glen is a mere stereotype, and his over-the-top style hurts the overall feel of the film.
Knoxville seems to be underplaying his role by comparison and Brian Cox is a riot as the smarmy Uncle Gary, a man who clearly has no tact and is only interested in one thing - Uncle Gary. Katherine Heigl is absolutely charming as Lynn, a Special Olympics coach and the twinkle in Steve/Jeffy's eye. In fact, I'm convinced that this actress is going to be a big star. Whatever "it" is, she's got it in spades. This goes far beyond physical beauty (and she is gorgeous). Heigl really brings something special (if you'll pardon the pun) to the proceedings.
As for the inevitable romance that brews in The Ringer, it works even though we've seen such business thousands of times. It kind of reminded me of the Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler connection in The Wedding Singer, and I count my lucky stars that they don't beat a dead horse here like they did in the final act of Wedding Crashers (a good film that would have been much better had it been shorter). The Ringer clocks in at just over ninety minutes, a perfect length for a comedy of this nature.
The Ringer has several out-of-place moments including a sequence that was used for the coming attraction trailer months ago. The scene in question features Steve in a confessional, telling a priest that he's fixed the Special Olympics. Without missing a beat, the priest throws a punch at him. Subsequently, this very same priest shows up a few minutes later in the film, in one of The Ringer's uglier and ill-inspired moments.
I also had issues with The Ringer's depiction of Jimmy (I'm not sure if this an ode to South Park or not), the six time Gold winner expected to win the games. Because of his success at past Special Olympics, this young athlete has more-or-less evolved into a cocky, money grubbing jerk, and the whole scenario was unsettling to me. Thankfully, director Barry W. Blaustin backs off from this element of the story so that there isn't too much of an emphasis upon it. And on a side note, I'm not sure if the actor who plays Jimmy is actually challenged. I'm guessing not, but I suppose that's irrelevant.
The Ringer is hardly a perfect movie. There are moments that "do" go too far and the film does have a fair share of sitcom devices, but overall, I really had a good time. This isn't the crude, offensive, cheap-shot that people might be expecting - it's actually quite heartwarming and I really responded to that.
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