Directed by: Barry W. Blaustein
Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Katherine Heigl, Edward Barnabell, Zen Gesner
It's tempting to write a free pass for a movie like The Ringer, because it's so obviously well-intentioned -- at least insofar as any movie starring Johnny Knoxville can be so construed. The problem is that the movie itself is so blandly predictable, so shamelessly manipulative, so flatly directed and so unfunny that it's impossible for its good intentions to carry the day.
That the film was executive produced by Peter and Bobby Farrelly is hardly surprising, since their "bad taste" comedies have long evidenced a concern with the mentally challenged -- indeed, with anyone who is in some way "different." In fact, this makes up the overriding theme of both Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. Unfortunately, the brothers' participation here is notably absent on the creative side, which has been turned over to director Barry W. Blaustein (whose only previous credit is the wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat) and Family Guy writer Ricky Blitt. The results are, at best, Farrelly-Lite.
The basic premise of a "normal" guy fixing the Special Olympics by pretending to be mentally challenged is OK, but there's precious little dramatic tension to the way it's developed in Ringer. The fact that Steve Barker (Knoxville) is a real stand-up guy from the onset ensures that, because there's not much room for character growth. Compare him to Jack Black's Shallow Hal and you'll see what I mean.
Steve only becomes enmeshed in this scheme for the noblest of reasons. When he's ordered to fire a not-very-good and none-too-bright janitor, Stavi (Louis Avalos, Hollywood Homicide), Steve instead gives the man a job cutting the grass at his apartment complex, which results in him getting three fingers cut off by the lawnmower. Steve then finds himself needing $28,000 to get the errant digits reattached. At the same time, Steve's Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) owes $40,000 to a bookie and has the Great Idea that will get them both the money they require.
This effectively makes Steve an unwilling participant in the scheme from the very beginning and dumps the moral burden on Gary. In Farrelly terms, Gary roughly fulfills the function of Jason Alexander in Shallow Hal, but again there's no character growth. Gary is a sleaze from beginning to end; he's also the funniest thing in the film.
That's the second problem: The Farrellys manage to combine bad taste with deeper concerns; this movie puts each in separate compartments. The only thing that anyone learns in the course of the film consists of Steve discovering that Oscar-bait performances of the mentally challenged -- Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Sean Penn in I Am Sam -- have little to do with reality. It's a good point, and one that's long needed to be made. Sadly, it's housed in a movie that offers nothing much else.
Yeah, Ringer's heart's is in the right place, and it actually manages to make Johnny Knoxville almost likable (a notable feat), but ultimately, it's just not much of a movie. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and some drug references.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke