Knoxville enters Olympics with the Farrellys

This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. PT on July 30, 2003.

Fox Searchlight has gotten to the starting line on “The Ringer,” a Barry Blaustein-directed comedy that will star Johnny Knoxville as a guy who pretends to be mentally challenged so he can fix the Special Olympics.

The pic has long been a passion project for Conundrum partners Peter and Bobby Farrelly and Bradley Thomas. But what chance did they have on a film that suggests humor at the expense of the handicapped?

Thomas, who produces the pic with John Jacobs, said he and the Farrellys feel strongly that Ricky Blitt’s script doesn’t draw its laughs at the expense of any group. In fact, it turns out the competitor can’t beat the Special Olympians, and they quickly discover he’s an imposter.

The producers decided a year ago that they were not going to make the pic until the Special Olympics board approved. That preemptive work paid off recently when the Special Olympics board gave its blessing to the film.

“Even though this is not ‘The Hours,’ our intention has always been not only to make a funny movie, but one that sheds light on the humanity of all kinds of people,” Thomas said. The Farrellys always walk a tightrope on their madcap comedies; they’ve featured mentally and physically challenged characters in films like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal.” Their upcoming pic, “Stuck on You,” features Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins.

But the Conundrum partners say those characters are treated as people and empower the groups represented. Peter Farrelly said as much at a meeting with the Special Olympics’ board of directors, telling members, “I believe in God and would never do anything at all to hurt these people because I believe I’d go to hell.” Sargent Shriver, a member of the powerhouse board, replied: “This board can send you to hell.”

INTERPRETING INTEREST: The notoriously deliberate Sydney Pollack is finally ready to direct his first film since “Random Hearts,” and he wants his “Eyes Wide Shut” co-star Nicole Kidman to play the title role in “The Interpreter,” a Working Title/Universal co-production. Kidman’s being courted to play a U.N. interpreter who overhears an assassination plot and becomes a target. She and a federal agent try to stop the murder of an African leader.

Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are producing with Kevin Misher, but landing the Oscar-winning star of “The Hours” is hardly easy. Kidman’s being courted by every studio, from Columbia’s Nora Ephron-directed “Bewitched” to the Miramax comedy “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” a possible reteam with “Cold Mountain” director Anthony Minghella. Kidman’s “Stepford Wives” sked prompted her to exit “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Manderlay,” but “The Interpreter” looks to be a viable bet for next year.

DISHINGS: While Mel Gibson has been selectively showing “The Passion,” it’ll be a month before he’s completed a cut for domestic distributors. Icon’s Fox deal give that studio a leg up, but others are circling. Big question is whether Gibson will keep temporary subtitles that make pic’s Latin and Aramaic dialogue more accessible. Gibson originally wanted to make “Braveheart” in Latin, but he relented and won the best picture Oscar. He’d like “The Passion” to open Easter weekend … The success of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and past collaborations with Tim Burton make Johnny Depp the front-runner to play Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” … At the Southampton “Seabiscuit” screening, lit agent Mort Janklow hit the daily double, as pic provided paid gigs not only to client Laura Hillenbrand, but also “John Adams” author David McCullough, who provided the pic’s voiceover. Director Gary Ross, who gave Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon star-making roles in “Pleasantville,” feels his latest find will be jockey Gary Stevens. Ross also discovered Paul Walker, who debuted as Witherspoon’s jock boytoy in “Pleasantville.” “Paul was funny but as green as a 2-year-old racehorse,” Ross said. “It was his first job. He was back in the office, picking up his pictures. I saw him and said, ‘I just want you to know you’ve gotten the job.’ He literally said, ‘You’re kidding! Dude, I can turn on my phone!'”

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