Having strip-mined the taboos of dwarfism, conjoined twins, albinism, disfigurement and split-personality disorder for laughs, the Farrelly Bros. now turn their high-powered hoses on the Special Olympics.
It turns out to be a halfhearted dousing: “The Ringer” is neither as insensitive — or as funny — as one might expect.
“Jackass” mastermind Johnny Knoxville plays Steve Barker, a conflicted corporate hatchet man who pretends to be mentally disabled so he can compete in the Special Olympics and wager large sums of money on himself. Sure, it's ghastly, but he does it for a really, really good reason: To pay for a friend's finger-reattachment surgery. (First-time screenwriter
Ricky Blitt has clearly been brushing up on his Farrelly Bros. catechism.)
Egged on by his scuzzy uncle, Gary (Brian Cox), Steve assumes the persona of “Jeffy,” a high-functioning, mentally disabled lad with a “Little Rascals” cowlick and aggressively hiked-up shorts. Steve's “special” impersonation consists of little more than referring to himself in the third person, but it fools Lynn (“Grey's Anatomy”), a radiant Special Olympics volunteer who makes it hard for Steve to stay in character.
Steve has less success fooling a tight group of Special Olympics athletes, who — in the movie's edgiest, funny-nutty scenes — take him under their wing and become complicit in his scheme, mostly so he can unseat Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), a pampered Special Olympics champion with his own limousine and entourage. It's a diplomatic plot twist, a clever way of prolonging the fun while showing the disabled that the joke isn't solely on them. (Steve's co-competitors are played by both disabled and nondisabled actors.)
Certainly, director Barry Blaustein (“Beyond the Mat”) makes a nice show of outreach — enough of one, anyway, that the Special Olympics signed off on the movie after vetting the script, despite references to “ 'tards,” “ 'tardos” and “retards.” But is “The Ringer” a sincere treatment of a sensitive topic, or just another Farrelly Bros.-produced freak show? More of the latter, I think. The filter is just thicker than usual.
Dare I suggest that “The Ringer” could have been funnier with slightly less correctness? Knoxville holds back the most, so immersed in his “nice guy” role that he forgets his raison d'etre: Turning up the hose full-blast.