`Ringer' has untapped potential

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The Ringer may be the most well-intentioned comedy of the year - which should come as a surprise to all those skeptics who hear "mentally challenged" and "the Farrelly Brothers" in the same sentence and expect the worst. But the Farrellys, who are credited as the film's producers, want to have fun with the idea of a guy trying to rig the Special Olympics, not make fun of the whole operation. At that they succeed, to what should prove to be everyone's relief.

If the movie were as funny as it is well-meaning, this would be one for the ages. But it struggles so hard to be kind to its stars, many of whom are Special Olympians themselves, that it forgets to be funny. Heartwarming, yes, but not always funny.

Johnny Knoxville, his Jackass days seemingly behind him, plays Steve Barker, a nice guy who finds himself in a fix when a friend has three fingers lopped off in a lawn-mowing accident; ridden by guilt, Steve assumes the guy's medical bills. Only, where is he going to find $28,000?

To the rescue comes Steve's conniving, amoral Uncle Gary (Brian Cox), who's got some money issues of his own. His solution: Get Steve entered in the Special Olympics where he can assuredly beat the reigning pentathlon champ, Jimmy Washington (Leonard Flowers, a 16-year veteran of the Special Olympics who's really appeared on a Wheaties box). All Uncle Gary has to do is bet a fortune that Jimmy will lose, and then watch the cash roll in.

Steve reluctantly agrees, and practices by repeatedly watching Rain Man, I Am Sam and The Best of Chevy Chase (now that's funny!). As Jeffy, he gets himself entered in the competition.

But this isn't going to be easy, either morally or physically. For one thing, Steve's too nice a guy to go along without a few pangs of conscience. For another, his roommate, Billy (Edward Barbanell, who has Down syndrome), and some of the other athletes soon realize that he's pretending to be mentally challenged. And finally, there's the small problem that Steve's not exactly a prize athlete, and Jimmy is pretty darn good.

Fortunately for Steve, the Olympians are tired of having Jimmy win all the time. They agree not only to keep quiet about the ruse, but also to help in "Jeffy's" training.

Steve and his new buds, played by a mix of Special Olympians and professional actors, make for quite a crew. Their chemistry as a unit is almost palpable, their camaraderie seemingly genuine. And despite fears to the contrary, the film doesn't make its mentally challenged characters the butt of the jokes; more often than not, they instigate the humor rather than are victimized by it. Without fail, the movie's characters are human first, disabled or not disabled second.

The Ringer has its share of moments that are genuinely hilarious, but there's frequently the sense that screenwriter Ricky Blitt and director Barry W. Blaustein pull some of their punches. Whenever Jimmy shows up, for instance, he's surrounded by a protective entourage that should have been played for laughs. Instead, they just mill about, their comic potential resolutely untapped.

There's also a romantic subplot involving "Jeffy" and a Special Olympics volunteer played by Katherine Heigl that serves no purpose other than putting some serious eye candy in the movie (not that there's anything wrong with Heigl's performance). The relationship between the two is doomed from the start, and making believe it's anything other than doomed is a cheat that asks too much of an audience.

Still, The Ringer deserves points for being the noblest of efforts - and credit for managing to invoke a few laughs along the way.


The Ringer (Fox Searchlight Pictures) Starring Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Katherine Heigl. Directed by Barry W. Blaustein.

Rated PG-13.

Time 93 minutes.

Review B-

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