Published Dec 01, 2005There are a few sensitive, "don't go there!" subjects that comedies generally steer clear of: paedophilia, rape and the mentally challenged. When trailers for The Ringer began screening last year the reaction was so negative that the studio was forced to put it on ice. Now, with the support of the Special Olympics (the poster and ads even say so to ensure that this isn't 90 minutes of cruel, bad taste), this Farrelly Brothers production has been given the green light.
It's clear from the opening minutes that The Ringer is hardly the abomination many thought it would be. Johnny Knoxville, in his first real leading role, stars as Steve Barker, a junior clerk who somehow finds himself responsible for covering the medical bills of a janitor in a lawn mowing mishap. In order to pay up, Steve is forced to turn to his sleazy Uncle Gary (Brian Cox), who comes up with the idea to fix the Special Olympics by entering Steve and betting that Jimmy, the SO champion, will lose. Steve becomes "Jeffy," a developmentally disabled athlete, who quickly rubs his roommate and friends the wrong way until they discover the truth. Then, they join in on his plan to dethrone "Speshl J" and help by sadistically training him.
After the film ended, a viewer stated: "It wasn't as tasteless as I thought, or wanted it to be," and that quote sums it up. Laughing at developmental and physical disabilities is hardly in good taste or decent, and with The Ringer walking a fine line, it quickly softens the jokes with some safe humour, either from one of the Olympians or directed at Steve's shortcomings. One may wish it wasn't so eager to please and jump in with a comforting hug each time a nasty joke is delivered, but really, is there any way to make this film other than with kid gloves?
Using both professional actors and challenged novices to fill the roles of the athletes, there are plenty of funny moments, both genuine and simply because you feel you should laugh. Jed Rees (The Chris Isaak Show) steals the film with his sly yet simple take on Mike Myers's hyper-hypo "Phillip," a part that provides the film with much of the comic relief, since Knoxville still hasn't found his true acting funny bone outside of Jackass. And of course, there's a romantic sub-plot between Knoxville and Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl, which helps the story develop and set up a humiliating confession, giving the viewer a definitive moment of tension that, surprisingly, isn't as hate-filled as you'd expect.
For many, especially fans of the Farrelly Brothers, The Ringer won't be the movie you were hoping for, but deep down inside you'll know it is the only way to handle this sort of subject matter, no matter how disappointing it is to accept. (Fox Searchlight)