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The Ringer
cast: : Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Katherine Hiegl, Jed Rees, and Leonard Flowers

director: Barry W. Blaustein

94 minutes (12) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
The Ringer is a film that took seven years to get made and, with the subject matter being what it is, it's not difficult to see why. The story begins with lowly office worker Steve (Johnny Knoxville) asking his boss for a task that involves greater responsibility, only to be given the unenviable duty of firing the building's kindly janitor, Stavi (Luis Avalos). Conscience winning out, he instead decides to employ Stavi himself, offering him the position of gardener - a humanitarian gesture that goes horribly wrong when Stavi loses several of his fingers in an accident. Naturally, Steve is keen to cover the cost of an operation, yet finding the money isn't easy. Meanwhile, Steve's less scrupulous uncle (Brian Cox) needs to pay off a loan shark and, hearing of his nephew's dilemma, suggests a way of alleviating both of their financial burdens - a plan that involves rigging the Special Olympics.

If nothing else, The Ringer is likely to provoke a strong initial reaction - a film about feigning mental disability in order to win the Special Olympics is provocative enough, but the knowledge that it's produced by the Farrelly brothers and stars Johnny Knoxville makes it even more contentious. However, despite their reputation as purveyors of gross-out comedy, the Farrellys' films are typically feel-good affairs that attempt to combine humour with empathy, and The Ringer is no exception. Certainly, the film is flawed in many respects, but if anything it's overly conservative as opposed to ignorant or insensitive. As for Knoxville, he may not seem like the best choice for a role like this, but he gives a surprisingly sensitive performance and comes across as endearing rather than grating. Crucially, we always get a sense of his character's inner turmoil regarding his façade, and at no point does it seem like Steve is getting a kick out of what he's doing. It's perhaps also worth taking Knoxville's fan-base into consideration: due to the popularity of Jackass, Knoxville is likely to draw in young audience and so, while it would be ridiculous to suggest that people's beliefs will be instantly changed just because he is playing the role, younger viewers may be inclined to take the film's message more seriously when it's delivered by someone that they look up to.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the camaraderie between Steve and the other entrants in the Special Olympics, with these scenes coming across as genuine and warm-hearted. Regarding these characters, the decision to cast mentally challenged athletes/ actors in some of the roles is judicious and prevents the film from being hypocritical, although one could, of course, argue that all of these roles should have been played by people who have personal experience of disability. However, one never gets the sense that any of the cast are approaching the material in a disrespectful or ill-informed manner and all the actors are believable in the roles, meaning that the viewer is never prompted to analyse which actors are mentally challenged and which aren't. Ultimately, the chemistry between them means that it isn't an issue, which reinforces the film's key message.

Considering that the film is intended as a crowd-pleasing, heart-warming comedy, it's not surprising that the sequence of events that it depicts is predictable. Of course, the 'triumph against adversity' aspect is crucial to a film like this and few would argue for a bleak ending in place of an inspirational one. However, it would have been nice if there could have been a few surprises along the way. As it is, The Ringer is hackneyed from beginning to end and the obligatory romantic subplot is one example of this. In fairness, Katherine Hiegl does her best with the thinly sketched 'love interest' role and succeeds in being sweet and sympathetic, but her character still comes across as naïve, while the resolution to this storyline is simplistic and unconvincing.

That The Ringer was made with the support of the Special Olympics indicates that the film isn't derogatory towards this event or those that compete in it, yet it's perhaps also partly responsible for the film's main fault. Certainly, The Ringer should be applauded for its respectful and positive attitude, but there is also a sense that it's going out of its way not to offend. That is, it can sometimes be heavy-handed in its need to reinforce the message; as if it's seeking to make absolutely sure that the audience understands the point that it's trying to get across. This is most likely a result of nervousness, and this is understandable - with such delicate subject matter, any haziness in this respect would ruin what the film is trying to achieve. Nevertheless, there comes a point where the film has already established this yet continues to reiterate it and, as such, the viewer may feel slightly patronised. This isn't helped by forays into excessive sentimentality either: a certain amount of sentiment is to be expected in a film such as this and can be used to positive effect, yet the use of slow-mo and an emotive score sometimes goes into overkill and becomes saccharine.

Unfortunately, the focus on sentimentality and moralising means that comedy falls by the wayside, and the film offers surprisingly few laughs. Sometimes this is due to attempted gags failing but, more often, it seems like the film isn't even aiming to be particularly funny - it's too busy trying to be as inoffensive as possible. Still, there are a few amusing moments and most of these come courtesy of Brian Cox. The scenes in which he trains Steve to pass himself off as someone with mental disabilities may represent some of the films riskier moments, but they provide some laughs too, with this training programme including screenings of Forrest Gump, Rain Man and The Best Of Chevy Chase. Of course, this could have come across as offensive, but the film makes its position clear enough for us to know that there isn't any spitefulness behind these gags - rather, there is a sense of being able to see the humour in a scenario while still remaining resolutely good-natured. While the film has a responsibility to convey an important point, it's still a comedy and stands a better chance of getting its message across by including some laughs along the way rather than just preaching.

Overall, The Ringer provides gentle comedy rather than belly laughs. It's predictable and gets bogged down in sentiment, but its goal to increase recognition and understanding of the Special Olympics and people with mental disabilities is laudable. An average film in many respects, but one that's pleasant, easy to watch and, most importantly, has its heart is clearly in the right place.

DVD extras: the 'special edition' tag is a bit misleading, as the extra material isn't very substantial. There are several featurettes (focusing predominantly on the Special Olympics and the goal in making a film about this subject) but they're just brief publicity pieces that state the obvious and favour sentimentality rather than insight. As for the deleted scenes, we're treated to an ample amount, but they add little and aren't really worth viewing more than once. The commentary (featuring director Blaustein, screenwriter Ricky Blitt, producer Peter Farrelly, and actors Knoxville, Edward Barbanell, and John Taylor) is a fairly enjoyable listen, although it sufferers from the same problem as the main feature in that it can sometimes slip into mawkishness and heavy-handed moralising. Still, it's nice to hear input from Taylor and Barbanell who, as actors with mental disabilities, are particularly qualified to talk about the film's themes. There is also a good mix of humorous banter and more serious discussion, and there seems to be a genuine repartee between the speakers, which is something that also comes through in the film itself.
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