The bark of “The Ringer” is far more outrageous than its bite. Built on the ostensibly jaw-dropping premise that a non-disabled guy with money problems (played by Johnny Knoxville) conspires to fix the Special Olympics, the latest entry from the Farrelly brothers’ stable indicates the pair’s trend of downplaying their instincts for daring comedy in favor of a softer brand of humor. Sometimes veering close to being a promotional film for the Special Olympics, pic will be applauded by the disability community and its advocates but quickly ignored by longtime fans of the Farrellys and Knoxville for a subdued B.O. run.
To be sure, the Farrellys (serving as producers) aren’t behind the camera nor the script; that would be, respectively, Barry W. Blaustein (of the terrific pro wrestling doc “Beyond the Mat”) and Ricky Blitt (of TV’s “Family Guy”). But pic is very much branded by the Farrellys’ template of juggling extreme physical comedy with life lessons, and having able and disabled actors mingle on screen, with able thesps often playing characters with wildly severe physical challenges.
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The spin this time is that Knoxville’s Steve, able but an office flunky, ends up posing as an intellectually challenged fellow who signs up for the Special Olympics. Setup is strained beyond belief, as Steve is “promoted” to a post that compels him to fire company janitor Stavi (Luis Avalos), then guiltily hiring him as his house gardener. The now uninsured Stavi accidentally cuts off some of his fingers in the garden, and Steve must fork over $28,000 to get his fingers surgically reattached.
Looking to his shady Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) for help, Steve realizes he not only has no money to loan but is himself deep in debt to cutthroat loan sharks. A TV spot for the Special Olympics gives Uncle Gary the kooky idea for Steve to register as an athlete in the games being held in Texas, while the uncle sets up betting odds against dominant favorite Jimmy (Leonard Flowers).
Of course, this assumes that Steve can easily beat Jimmy, which is immediately unlikely, given Jimmy’s aura of invincibility and Carl Lewis-like physique, to say nothing of his stretch limo and imposing posse. The script’s rather sweaty and overworked mechanics for getting Steve into the games would also be much easier to bear if Knoxville were up for posing as a convincing Special Olympics competitor, while letting viewers in on the con. But the role is beyond Knoxville’s limitations, so he can’t create the illusion of a guy who’s trying to create an illusion.
This also damages the impact of Steve’s savvy roommate Billy (Edward Barbanell) and fellow athletes quickly spotting that he’s a faker — not difficult, really, given Knoxville’s weak portrayal. The one who’s slowest on the uptake is sweet Lynn (Katherine Heigl), who takes a liking to Steve — or, rather, Steve’s Olympics alter ego, “Jeffy Dahmor” — and he to her, setting up his inevitable unmasking with its dire emotional consequences.
A pleasant effect of the guys around Steve knowing his con is that they join in on his conspiracy to dethrone Jimmy, whose star egomania makes him their arch nemesis. It also allows for that rare sight in the movies of extended comedy and action scenes involving several disabled thesps outnumbering the able ones, until any initial differences melt away — precisely the result the Farrellys, Blaustein and Blitt are after.
Besides the funny sight of Cox eagerly playing a scumbag in a sports setting imbued with the best intentions, the most memorable thesping turns by far are from such challenged actors as Barbanell, finding amusing notes to play as Steve’s newfound friends.
It says something about pic’s benign profile and avowed mission to alter auds’ view of the disabled that the most classically Farrelly-esque moment happens far from the Olympics track in a Catholic confessional box with Steve and a royally pissed-off priest. Production package is squeaky clean, with soundtrack buffed up by repeated use of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from “The Magnificent Seven.”