The Ringer Review
Perennially unlucky office clerk Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) is in a fix. After his good nature sees him hire a recently laid off immigrant worker to mow his lawn, things take a turn for the worse as his new employee manages to sever several of his fingers in a calamitous incident in his garden. After assuring him of medical insurance and not delivering, Steve finds himself staring at an enormous hospital bill he can't even dream of paying. In steps his unscrupulous uncle Gary, a morally bereft con man and compulsive gambler. Against Steve's better judgement, the pair hatch an elaborate scheme to clean up by gambling on the outcome of the Special Olympics. Their sure-fire plan of success is to pose Steve (a former drama student) as a mentally handicapped competitor, the hapless Jeffy. The conniving pair soon discover however, that rigging the Olympics is not as easy as they envisaged.
The Ringer spent two years on the studio's shelf after its completion, and given the quite frankly outrageous premise of the film, it's not hard to see why. After actually getting the Special Olympics themselves on board to endorse the movie, we could perhaps speculate that those two years may well have been spent working out just how to edit the film into something that could be accepted by such patrons and the general public alike. Unfortunately after such deliberations on a marketing strategy, The Ringer has come out of the other end somewhat of a non-entity. It's offensive to watch in parts, not because of the way it depicts the mentally challenged, but more the manipulative and arguably hypocritical stance it takes throughout the film.
Now the Farrelly brothers (who produce here) have essentially made a career out of exploiting potentially explosive bad taste material to great commercial gain. In their earlier days, their targets were a lot broader and simpler: dimwits, Mormons, charlatans, all transported into gross out scenarios. After earning their spurs as purveyors of bad taste, the concepts got more and more extreme: multiple personalities, obesity, Siamese twins. This coincided with a marked drop off in quality in the movies, especially after they were hauled over the coals for Me, Myself & Irene's treatment of mental disorders. In an ironic twist, the more offensive the premise, the more the films tip-toed around their subjects for fear of enraging anybody. The edge and the raucous humour that defined the Farrelly's away from sanitised tat courtesy of say, Adam Sandler, was gone, replaced by a safety net of political correctness. Now in this respect it's quite easy to see how there really is no saving such an incendiary topic as covered in The Ringer.
A great deal has been made of the movies pro-active stance towards the issues of mental disability, and if that is truly the case then it must be commended. But is a gross out comedy really the ideal format to explore the positive aspects of this debate? Or is it just a neat premise to lure in the crowds, and the filmmakers have softened the blow by cynically riding the PC train to make them seem less manipulative? The Ringer is hugely problematic because, through its premise and the history of those involved, it's trading on that same financial market as any other bad taste comedy. The film constructs scenarios that actively encourage it's fair share of un-PC laugher, but then makes itself feel better by simultaneously wagging the finger of disapproval at the audience for finding such tasteless humour amusing. It wants to concurrently exploit the lampooning aspects of the situation whilst proclaiming itself to be above this immature and heartless buffoonery. It wants to have its cake and eat it.
Unfortunately this means the end result is a rather pointless and ineffectual affair. For the most part the comedy falls flat, being as sharp as a butter knife in its desperate attempt to justify itself. What remains is a comedy that very rarely dares to be funny, with only Brian Cox really getting a chance to shine. That's because he plays a very bad man you see, and only bad men don't have to sit on the fence. Nearly every other protagonist has to make the best of broad two dimensional characters, probably the most glaring of this being love interest Katherine Heigl, whose role consists of being compassionate and grinning a lot, and her boyfriend Zen Gesner, whose gambit is to sleaze up the screen uncontrollably. As an actor I have a lot of time for Knoxville, and he's not too bad here. He certainly has noticeable limitations, but he's affable enough and carries the film adequately.
This is Barry W. Blausteins first stab at directorial comedy and it shows. The film can't help but seem tired and episodic. All the bases are covered, but none of the scenes really seem to hit home, and the whole enterprise seems rushed despite its reasonable running time. It's low key in the extreme, there's never a sense of climax, and the whole thing isn't really helped by Family Guy scribe Ricky Blitt, whose screenplay is an uneven series of vignettes desperately struggling to piece together.
All in all The Ringer is a difficult film to watch without feeling you are being manipulated every step of the way. It's wildly inconsistent politics make it an uneven and not particularly pleasant watch. In its favour, it trundles along amiably enough in its own predictable and inoffensive way, although it's unlikely to inspire any kind of fevered interaction from its audience other than mild disinterest.