Director : Barry W. Blaustein
Screenplay : Ricky Blitt
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Johnny Knoxville (Steve Barker), Brian Cox (Uncle Gary), Katherine Heigl (Lynn), Zen Gesner (David Patrick), Luis Avalos (Stavi), Leonard Flowers (Jimmy), Mohammad Ahmed (Dr. Ahmed), Bill Chott (Thomas), Edward Barbanell (Billy), Camille Chen (Sarah)
It sounds like the worst bad-joke movie ever -- a guy pretends to be mentally challenged in order to fix the Special Olympics -- but The Ringer is actually a surprisingly sweet comedy that draws its laughs not from its characters’ handicaps, but from a consistent upending of stereotypes on both sides of the spectrum. Humor at the expense of the mentally and physically challenged is usually given its counterpoint in equally simplistic and potentially offensive portraits of them as one-note noble saints; The Ringer avoids both clichés by making its characters meaningfully and humorously human.
Jackass-turned-actor Johnny Knoxville stars as Steve Barker, a slightly spineless, nice-guy everyman who finds himself in a dilemma when his boss orders him to fire the company janitor, Stavi (Luis Avalos). Stavi is a widower with five children and an almost impossibly good attitude about life, and when Steve gives him a job cutting the grass at his apartment complex, Stavi ends up cutting off three of his fingers. Of course, Stavi doesn’t have any health insurance, and Steve feels responsible for the accident, which is why he decides to go along with a scheme to fix the Special Olympics concocted by his morally vacant Uncle Gary (Brian Cox), who owes some mobsters $40,000.
Steve, who was both a minor track star and a budding actor in high school, pretends to be a “high-functioning mentally challenged” young man named Jeffy so he can compete in the Special Olympics. The assumption is that Steve will run rings around the other athletes, but he quickly finds that it’s not so easy, especially when going up against Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), the six-time Special Olympics champion who arrives at the stadium in a limo surrounded by body guards and hangers-on. Steve is also confounded by his attraction to Lynn (Katherine Heigl), a beautiful counselor at the Special Olympics who, of course, only knows him as Jeffy.
During the course of the movie, Steve gets to know his fellow athletes, whom he finds are not only much more than their labels, but intriguing characters in their own right. They are alternately funny, selfish, kind, competitive, giving, and prankish -- in other words, resolutely human. Screenwriter Ricky Blitt (a veteran of TV’s Family Guy) never pretends that they aren’t limited in ways that Steve isn’t, but at the same time, there are ways in which they transcend him, and it is a genuinely meaningful moment near the end when Steve angrily implores to Uncle Gary that he not call them “retards” because they’re his friends.
The Ringer’s most delightful surprise is the way in which it creates a funny buddy-movie vibe between Steve and the other athletes, especially once they figure out his ruse (not surprisingly, they’re the only ones) and decide to go along with him because they’re sick of seeing Jimmy win all the time. It puts a twist on typical comedy conventions and turns inside out our preconceptions about what constitutes “politically incorrect.”
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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