|The Ringer (2005)
Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Katherine Heigl, Brian Cox
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
It’s curious that “The Ringer” sat on the studio’s shelves for two years before seeing the light of day. The only explanation I can find is that the studio didn’t know how to market the movie to the public, and that notion, that it takes two years to figure out how to prepare the world for a movie about someone rigging the Special Olympics, is the most offensive thing about “The Ringer.” The movie itself is quite harmless and, like most Farrelly Brothers projects (they serve as the movie’s producers), the movie’s heart is always in the right place. The story plays out like an old “Three’s Company” episode in its by-the-numbers execution, but despite its flimsy setup, it winds up being quite enjoyable. In fact, the Special Olympics are endorsing the movie, for crying out loud. What was the studio so afraid of?
Johnny Knoxville stars as Steve Barker, a worker drone who asks his boss for a promotion, gets one, and in his first order of business has to fire the janitor Stavi (Luis Avalos). Steve can’t bring himself to do it, so he gets Stavi to quit instead and work for him mowing lawns. After an accident costs Stavi three of his fingers, Steve needs a whole mess of cash in a hurry in order to pay for an operation, so he hits up his uncle Gary (Brian Cox, God love him). Gary, however, is short on dough as well, getting squeezed by a bookie for even more money than Steve needs. After seeing a bit on TV, Gary gets the brilliant idea to enter Steve in the Special Olympics, thinking he’d run all over them. Steve is obviously reluctant, but the urgency of Stavi’s situation pushes him to do the unthinkable.
What neither Steve nor Gary was expecting was that the “‘tards” (as Gary oh-so casually refers to them) were a lot smarter than they expected, not to mention much more athletic. The Olympians instantly realize that this guy “Jeffy” is a fake, but instead of ratting him out, they actually help Steve train to win it all. Their reason: the winner of the Olympics for the last six years is an arrogant punk named Jimmy (real life Special Olympian Leonard Flowers), and the gang wants to see him go down. Steve is more than eager to play along, as long as it keeps him close to Special Olympics volunteer Lynn (Katherine Heigl, who looks uncommonly like Scarlett Johannson).
Picking the story structure apart is a waste of time and energy; of course the setup is going to be exactly what you think it will be, with the tryouts, the meet cute, the Awful Truth, the training sequence, the final showdown, and the moment where the impostor comes clean. They follow that pretty much step by step (the ending does have one very pleasant surprise), but that’s hardly the point. No one sees “The Ringer” to experience radical storytelling; they see it to laugh, and thanks to director Barry Blaustein and writer Ricky Blitt, they’ll laugh both a lot and for the right reasons. The ‘tards, so to speak, are in on the joke far more often than not, and it is that humanization of the characters that keeps the premise afloat. That, and shots of Knoxville missing the mat in the high jump, getting water balloons in the crotch, racking himself on hurdles, getting sucker punched in a church, and getting slapped in the face – hard – by Heigl (I hope they got that on the first take, because she slugs him). Call it A Very Special Episode of “Jackass.”
And quick, mad props to Brian Cox for taking the role of Gary and giving it every bit the sleazy soullessness that it demands. Five years ago, this part might have gone to someone like Billy Bob Thornton, but Cox was born to play the part of Gary, for whom no person or opportunity is above exploiting for personal gain. He’s pitch perfect.
“The Ringer” isn’t going to rewrite any of the rules of comedy, but that is not its endgame. It wants you to laugh at a movie about mentally challenged people without feeling guilty about it, and it accomplishes that goal in spades.
The single-disc release of Fox's "The Ringer" only has a few extra features (including ten deleted scenes and a short making-of featurette) to speak of, and with the exception of the audio commentary with director Barry Blaustein, producer Peter Farrely and star Johnny Knoxville, the bonus material is a major disappointment.