Here is the most schizophrenic comedy I have seen in quite some time. The Ringer is a movie that wants to shock us, warm our hearts, and make us cheer all at the same time. Unfortunately, the film fails at just about every approach it tries. It would seem that director Barry Blaustein (Beyond the Mat) and screenwriter Ricky Blitt (TV's Family Guy) were facing a major identity crisis while making the film, and even they had no idea what the final result was going to be. The end result is a beyond dumb movie that has no right being on the screen. Judging by the film's telltale 2004 copywrite date, the studio felt the same way as me.
Johnny Knoxville plays Steve Barker, a down on his luck schmuck who, as the film opens, is forced by his boss at the company he works for to fire his friend, Stavi (Luis Avalos) - an immigrant worker with a large family who works as the janitor. Wanting to soften the blow, Steve tells him that he will offer him more money than the company pays him to mow his lawn professionally. Unfortunately, on the first day on the job, Stavi's fingers are cut off by the mower. Now faced with the tremendous medical bills to pay for his friend's operation, Steve is looking for a way to make a lot of money fast. Steve's Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) is also facing money problems of his own, as he's indebted to some violent loan sharks. Fortunately, Uncle Gary knows that the guys like to place big bets on the Special Olympics. He comes up with a scheme where Steve will pass himself off as one of the participants, beat all the other athletes, and with the win they will take all of the loan sharks' money, thus solving both of their financial troubles.
Steve is opposed to the idea at first, but knowing that there's no other way to get the money for Stavi's operation, he eventually gives in. Steve enters the Special Olympics as a mentally challenged person named Jeffy Dahmer (ho ho...), and quickly learns that he's in over his head, as he's out of shape, and his fellow Special Olympians can literally run circles around him. The other participants quickly see through Steve's scam, but agree to help him, because they want him to beat the cocky 6-time event winner, Jimmy, who is as powerful as any regular sports celebrity, and even has endorsement deals. More problems lie ahead for our hero when he meets and starts to fall in love with the beautiful and kind volunteer worker, Lynn (Katherine Heigl). Steve's conscience starts to get the best of him as he gains new respect for the mentally handicapped, and begins to question his own motives.
An uncomfortable mix of shock raunch humor, sappy sweet romantic comedy, and every underdog sports movie cliche in the book, The Ringer is such a curious movie because you don't know how you're supposed to react to it. The first half seems to want to gross you out with toilet humor and violent sight gags, the middle portion wants to inspire and make us cheer, and the last half wants us to root for Steve as he tries to confess his true feelings and identity to the lovely Lynn. Unfortunately, no matter what the film tries to be, it falls flat because the filmmakers just don't know how to work any of its angles successfully. The shock/raunch humor in particular falls with an almost deafening thud. The scenes that were supposed to offend us were met by a rather uninterested silence. Take the scene where we get a montage of Steve trying out different mentally challenged personas in front of a mirror. Not only have we seen this kind of stuff way too many times before (It seems every comedy that features the main character disguising himself as someone else has to have a montage where he or she tries out different "wacky" personalities in front of a mirror.), but the jokes themselves just fall flat. In this scene, Johnny Knoxville is not playing a variety of mentally challenged people, he's just doing silly voices and making faces in a mirror. It's like the movie expects us to be shocked that he's actually doing this. I'd be even more shocked if they could think of something actually funny to do in this scene.
Perhaps more so than the lack of identity, I was also bothered by just how ludicrous and hard to swallow the film itself is altogether. I know, it's a screwball comedy, and I'm not supposed to be thinking too deeply about the plot, but seriously, does anyone really bet on Special Olympic events? Do people really gather in bars in massive numbers to watch the event on TV and bet hundreds of thousands of dollars? Do the Special Olympics get 'round the clock coverage on every sports and news network? I think the movie is trying to parody sports movie cliches, but there's just one tiny problem with this theory - the movie takes its own plot completely seriously. Not once do they poke fun at its own cliches, it simply puts the cliches up there on the screen, and expects us to go along with it. It just gets to be a bit too much as the movie goes on.
A couple critics who defend this movie say that it paints a positive portrait of the mentally handicapped, and point to the fact that the actual Special Olympics cooperated in the making of the film as evidence that behind its somewhat un-PC plot, the film means well. While I do applaud that the script tries to make the athletes the senders of the film's jokes instead of the receivers, I take offense at how they're portrayed as overly cute, one-liner spewing machines that seem to have walked out of some kind of twisted Special Olympics sitcom. Instead of being actual characters with distinctive personalities, they simply stand in the background, and make "clever" comments about what's going on around them. Still, at their worse, these guys are about ten times more interesting than the professional actors that surround them. Johnny Knoxville doesn't seem to know if he's supposed to be playing a slimy lowlife jerk, or a sweet and sensitive romantic lead, so he gives a little of both. I must admit, he does have a couple of cute moments in the film with female lead Heigl, but he just can't make us care enough about him to make us want to see him get the girl and confess the truth to her and everyone. The big embarrassment here is Brian Cox as the sleazy uncle that masterminds the scam. He's completely unfunny from the second he enters the film, trying to be rude and crude, but only coming across as desperate and lame. I admire Cox as an actor, but here, he simply was hard to even watch.
I would like to make it clear that I did not find anything in The Ringer offensive other than the fact that someone thought I would actually be laughing at it. The movie does have a few mild chuckles here and there, but most of the humor is so forced that you almost want to hide your eyes in disbelief that the actors are actually going through with it. Movies like this all but prove why I think 2005 was one of the worst years for movies in a while, and this is far from the worst of the lot I had to sit through this year. Everyone involved with The Ringer would be wise to have a good long talk with their agent. For their sake, I hope the movie comes and goes from the cineplexes quickly.
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