Johnny Knoxville is one highly improbable performer. Who would have thought that a guy best known for doing dangerous stunts with a collection of crude cutups would suddenly turn into a viable Tinsel Town talent? Over the last five years, Knoxville has moved beyond the jerk joke joviality of Jackass to star in the big screen remake of The Dukes of Hazzard, play a portentous pervert in John Water's A Dirty Shame, and inhabit a two headed alien in Men in Black II. Though the aura from his antics on that MTV milestone always seems to stay with him, he still brings a kind of mannered madness to everything he does. So the notion of Knoxville playing a spaced-out spaz for the sake of some financial scheme fits right into his regressive range. And when we learn the effort will be produced by those experts at craven comedy, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, our expectations are substantially raised. It's like adding gratuity to the standard gross out! Sadly, The Ringer is less than effective. Buried inside all the standard Hollywood hogwash is an interesting film about what motivates the mentally challenged. Too bad that the movie business mandates for a love story and a clear cash narrative motivation derail the effort.
After two years of going nowhere and feeling like a loser, paper pushing employee Steve Barker believes he deserves a better job. Surprisingly, his boss agrees, and Steve is given his first managerial task – fire the friendly foreign janitor, Stavi. Unable to terminate the man's tenure, Steve instead hires him on as a gardener for his apartment complex. A lawnmower accident later, and our good natured knob is into the local hospital for $30,000. Looking for ways to raise the cash, Steve calls his lowlife Uncle Gary, who has a horrible gambling problem. Owing money to a bookie himself, the redolent relative concocts a crazy plan – he will get Steve to pretend to be mentally challenged, and rig the Special Olympics. Wagering on the outcome, both men stand to clean up. Initially, everything goes well. Steve becomes 'Jeffy Dahmor', an awkward if able athlete. But he soon learns that his competitors are a calculating, crafty bunch, their outward friendly façade hiding a mischievous, sometimes mean-spirited edge. As he trains, Steve starts to fall for counselor Lynn Sheridan. But she can only offer the support she shows to all the other contestants. It will take more than cunning to beat the reigning champion, an arrogant ass named Jimmy. Steve will have to get some help from a very unlikely source if he is to play the role of The Ringer and save the day.
The Ringer suffers from a severe case of cinematic split personality. On the one hand you have a standard slacker comedy with all the pre-fabricated formulaic facets typical of the genre – lead loser, horrible job, loner lifestyle, lack of self-esteem, unexpected personal problems – that lead to a supposedly hilarious bit of happenstance. Of course, in our post-millennial world of wit, said humor must be intertwined with an intermittent amount of gross-out gags and an irritating allotment of self-irony. Within this unfunny foundation of forced laughter lies The Ringer, and Johnny Knoxville's character Steve. The kind of bumbling butthead who listens to motivational tapes featuring the voice of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Steve is so desperate to advance in his nowhere job that he's willing to do anything to gain the boss's favor. Through a staggering bit of illogical misfortune, Steve is left owing $30K for some medical bills, and suddenly we are languishing in retread Rob Schneider territory. All we need are a foreigner with a funny accent (our unfortunate accident victim Stavi), a hot babe whose also understanding and open minded (the lovely Lynn, check!) and an array of ancillary characters meant to simultaneously help and hinder our hero (oh yeah…). We get all that, and not much more, in this uninspired slice of non-PC shock, a film that wants to be in as bad of taste as possible, but truly doesn't have the guts to push the tacky envelope beyond its PG-13 parameters.
Writer Ricky Blitt has delivered a perfectly implausible script. It's obvious why his other credits include Family Guy, The Parent 'Hood' and The Jeff Foxworthy Show. All throughout the first 40 minutes of this tired, tedious tale, we have to believe in such sitcom style realities as hospitals that won't treat patients, bookies that still take bets from men owing thousands of dollars, a Special Olympics that has a more or less open door policy regarding participants, and perhaps the most unbelievable of all, that someone as severely limited in his performance parameters as Johnny Knoxville can actually…act. Give him an upturned Port-a-Potty and a couple of crawfish clamped on his nipples and you believe his dopey daredevil dynamic. But have him play a moron and the notes he hits are all singular in sound and sentiment. In the beginning, as Steve, Knoxville is noxious; so much of a dweeb that even overprotected momma's boys want to beat his ass. His character is a walking, talking void, empty in both present or past identifiablity. This character is literally tossed on the screen without a lick of likeability. Once we get to the handicapped portion, however, Knoxville tries to turn on the 'tard. His Jeffy Dahmor has the unique personality quirk of tilting his head to the right when he speaks (talk about a keen sense of characterization). If it wasn't for the weird way Knoxville tries to talk, stammering and stuttering while referring to himself in the third person, we'd assume he was just too tired to stand up straight. The results are about as believable as Rosie O'Donnell in Riding the Bus with My Sister.
But then the story takes an unusual u-turn which almost saves it - a wonderfully inventive idea that few films focusing on the mentally handicapped appear capable of considering. Instead of turning our Olympians into overly maudlin, manipulative mannequins, The Ringer allows Jeffy/Steve's fellow competitors to be crude, rude, funny and flawed. It proposes that everyone's the same, no matter their intellectual or physical capacity. While it would have been great to have Knoxville surrounded by nothing but "special" actors and actresses, the movie only goes so far. Several of his athletic compatriots suffer from some manner of real disability, but there are a few thespian 'ringers' in this mix as well. For example, notable narrative lynch pin Glenn, a Burger King working wonder with a soulful scrunched up face, is not afflicted. He is played by Jed Rees, a Canadian performer with an IMDb resume several entries long. On the other hand, Jeffy/Steve's roommate Billy, a Kids of Widney High loving wise guy, is essayed by the exceptional Edward Barbanell. It is possible to give this confused casting a pass since the sequences between Knoxville and his newfound friends are marvelous. There is a natural chemistry and easy rapport between them, and the laughs don't seem obvious or labored. It is here where we see what The Ringer could have become. If Blitt and his equally uninspired partner in crime, director Barry W. Blaustein had simply stuck with this story (Knoxville volunteers for the Special Olympics and meets a group on interesting, irreverent participants) we'd have a much better movie than the one offered.
Instead, we are stuck in ridiculous resolution mode, having to find a way for the money to be made, the girl to be won, and Steve's outlook to be brightened. The film's finale offers no real surprises, moving along mechanically to a conclusion based on semantics and short attention spans. After the screen goes black and the "six months later" title card appears, we realize that The Ringer is all out of ideas. It's not going to explain, just assert, wrapping everything up in a bow of benefice that no one in the narrative has deserved. Knoxville's Steve may have had an epiphany or two, but how he ended up being forgiven by those he fooled is left for our imagination to infer. If the Farrellys are so found of making movies where people with disabilities are championed and showcased, they should have removed all the regressive retrofitting asked for by the studios and simply made the film that they wanted. If done correctly, even with the addition of some professional acting help, the results would have been far fresher than this tired bit of trading places. The Ringer has some real reasons for audiences to cotton to its conceits. The middle Act, revolving around the Special Olympics and its athletes, is well worth a look. The rest, including Knoxville's lack of performance pluck, is best left for the dipstick school of post-modern comedy.
Fox presents The Ringer in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image (a full screen version is also available, but why bother) that is just outstanding. The colors are crisp and correct, and the details remain easily discernible in this terrific transfer. Director Blaustein is no cinematic visionary however, and he is clearly not out to make some sort of artistic statement. His compositions are competent, but nothing here screams 'sensational'. In essence, this is a wonderful version of a journeymen-like shoot.
Offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that makes minimal use of the channels, we get crystal clear dialogue and lots of musical nuance in this adequate aural presentation. The use of easily identifiable pop songs is a Farrelly trademark, and The Ringer's sonic situations here help the tunes ring with ear candy efficiency. During the track and field events, we do get some of the spatial ambiance a surround sound circumstance can create, but for the most part, this is a perfectly professional and perfunctory decibel dynamic.
While not overflowing with added content (the EPK Making-of and missive statement from the Special Olympics really don't count), we do get a few fine bonus features here. There are 16 deleted scenes which add little to the film overall. Instead of presenting outtakes or alternative line readings, what we get here are dropped subplots (Knoxville's Asian neighbor, a stoner girl at the movie theater) as well as a couple of missing moments from our handicapped hams. Even better is the anarchic audio commentary featuring Blitt, Blaustein, Peter Farrelly, Knoxville and two of his mentally challenged co-stars, Edward Barbanell and John Taylor. During the opening sections of the movie, Farrelly and his creative team really tear into Knoxville, calling him every name in the book ('drunk' and 'perverted' being the most popular) and riffing on the reality of getting the movie made. Once Barbanell and Taylor hit the screen, however, the guys step back and let them talk about their experiences on set. Just like the film, the actual Special Olympians are more interesting and engaging than the Tinsel Town talent. Less a behind the scenes look at the production and more of a genial get together between old friends, the alternative track exposes the good intentions and lengthy approval process required to get The Ringer made. Too bad more of this motivation didn't make it into the movie proper.
Had the material involving the Special Olympics not been included in this comedy, The Ringer would easily require a rating of Skip It. Nothing star Johnny Knoxville does in the first 40 minutes of the movie – even in his scenes with the exceptional Brian Cox – inspires a need to spend time with his character or invest any emotion in his trumped up troubles. However, had the film focused solely on the contestants and their stereotype shattering behavior, it would easily earn a mark of Recommended. Therefore, if we split the difference and attempt to apply a sensible score, Rent It seems more like a reasonable reality. In truth, Knoxville is not really cut out to be an actor. He is better when he mixes nerve with nastiness to elevate the art of slapstick to an apocalyptic art. An effective creator of character he is not. Maybe someday the Farrellys will finally make their celebration of specialness without requiring the surrounding stunt scripting to carry it. People with disabilities both mental and physical deserve better than a film like The Ringer. It only allows them a partial place in the narrative necessities. The rest of this regressive effort is standard Hollywood hackwork.
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