Judge David Johnson has been told he's a dead ringer for Thomas Ulsrud of the Norwegian curling team.
Our review of The Ringer, published May 16th, 2006, is also available.
Make it special.
This is the first time I've actually seen this. I still remember recoiling at the trailers in 2005. Surely they're not going there?!I asked myself. Making fun of people with developmental disabilities? Really?!
I am happy my first impression was so wrong.
Facts of the Case
Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) is Steve Barker, a generally decent guy who tries to do a nice thing for a friend and ends up owing a boatload to a hospital. Without any other way to pay off his debt, he succumbs to the pleading of his dickbag uncle (Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity) and enters the Special Olympics, pretending to have a disability. The scheme? His uncle will bet big on Steve and the two will clean up. Along the way, Steve incrementally realizes how awful a person he is, befriends his fellow Olympians and falls for the nice, attractive volunteer (Katherine Heigl, Knocked Up).
There's a reason Special Olympics backed The Ringer: it's pretty much a love letter to their mission and folks with special needs in general. Over the years I had heard as much, but never felt compelled to track down the film to see if my initial revulsion was on the money. Of course it wasn't because what studio would green-light a comedy mocking folks with disabilities?
The Ringer is sweet-natured and innocuous all the way through. Anyone who disparages the Special Olympians in the film is painted as a douchebag jerk. And the main gimmick of Steve pretending to be mentally challenged is neutralized by 1) the fact that he loathes himself for stooping so low (and ultimately pays the penalty with brutal public humiliation) and 2) his co-Olympians learn of his ruse, but implore to keep it up so he can beat the hotshot champion who never loses. It's a clever end-run around the Johnny-Knoxville-pretending-he's-disabled shtick that would have inexorably wandered into inappropriate territory.
So from that angle, The Ringer works. No one is getting made fun of here and, really, Steve's crew are either providing the one-liners (usually at Steve's expense) or doing some light self-deprecation of their own.
Where the film doesn't quite find its footing is in two (big) areas: the comedy and the romance. It's a difficult balance to pull this movie off and most of the laughs are designed to come from scenarios that have Knoxville as the butt of the jokes. The guy tries his best and largely succeeds, but The Ringer, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, eventually tends more towards the "charming and good-natured" rather than "laugh-out-loud funny." Honestly, that was enough for me, though I couldn't find fault with anyone who disliked the film because it simply wasn't that funny.
On the other end is the strained romantic subplot with Heigl's character and Steve. This concoction rests on the premise that this girl, who gives her heart and soul to the cause and in fact lost a brother who had a disability, would be engaged to an obvious a-hole that condescends and is irritated by people with disabilities. There's a happy ending coming (despite Steve's Unpardonable Sin), but this was the least effective element of the movie.
The Blu-ray: a solid 2.35:1, 1080p transfer, supported by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix and the following recycled extras: commentary by Knoxville and the creative team. 16 deleted scenes and a making-of featurette (a heartfelt look that shows how much Knoxville really enjoyed his time on set with his co-stars).
As someone who has worked in the field of developmental disabilities and has a deep-seated appreciation and admiration for my friends with special needs, I found The Ringer big-hearted and worthwhile. I wasn't laughing all the time, but I'm cool with that.
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