Barry W. Blaustein's The Ringer wants to be too many things to too many people. And so many wants is a bad, desperate thing.
Produced by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, directors of crass classics like Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, and Me, Myself and Irene among other comedies concerning the "challenged" (conjoined twins Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear anyone?), The Ringer so wants to channel the coarse humanity and warmth of those films that it begins to feel desperate and, worse, unfunny.
The movie's main joke is potentially offensive (which is part of the joke itself). A weak-willed office worker named Steve (Johnny Knoxville) poses as a mentally challenged man named Jeffy so he can compete in the Special Olympics. But it's for a good cause—at least partially. His friend lost his fingers in an unfortunate gardening mishap and Steve's determined to help him with the money his slime-bag Uncle (Brian Cox) will win from his shoo-in bet on the competition. Of course a "regular" person, especially one who excelled in high school track, could beat a group of "retarded" kids, right? Well, no. It's not as easy as it looks.
Neither is playing challenged. Knoxville's Jeffy is found out by his Special Olympics friends when, during lunch, he speaks in his regular voice for a moment. Honestly, no one would believe Knoxville's bad, coy, half-spaz impersonation--my brother does a better impression of the mentally handicapped. But after explaining his predicament (a terribly unfunny scene in which he resorts to a child-like flow chart for the athletes to understand), they rally behind him. He's their friend, and besides, they can't stand the pompous reigning champion with his endorsements and ever-present entourage. Yes, the mentally challenged can be assholes too. They want Steve/Jeffy to win.
But do we want him to win? No. What he's doing is despicable. But, to be fair to the film, he feels like an awful person. He even resorts to a confession, which culminates in one of the picture's funnier scenes—the priest knocks his arm through the confessional window and punches Steve in the face.
But most of the movie strains under its desire to be so…nice, you can practically hear the filmmakers saying, "Hey, we think the challenged are funny. And it's OK to laugh. But make sure you're laughing with them. Well, maybe laugh at them sometimes, because, after all, they're people just like us and we laugh at people every day. But never think they are inferior, and remember that the "r" word is bad. Got it?"
Yes, we got it. And we're not laughing, either at or with these people. Though the film isn't execrable, and in some moments it's even sweet-natured (I think), it never flowers into anything deep or clever or, as it clearly wants, edgy. You can't tiptoe around that politically incorrect edge.
Which is further brought home in the DVD's supplemental materials. Along with 16 deleted scenes (some that give Steve a little more of a personality), there are featurettes about the film and the Special Olympics. There's also a message from Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver (who endorsed the film), just so we know, once again, that this is all OK. The commentary track with director Blaustein, screenwriter Ricky Blitt, producer Peter Farrelly, and actors Knoxville, Edward Barbanell, and John Taylor does what the film wanted—to be politically incorrect and thoughtful—with cast and crew engaging in off color jokes (they really pat themselves on the back with some of them--like, Oh! Shocking!) while praising the challenged cast members and how they really wanted audiences to think. Sadly, their commentary comes off much like the film: forced, unfunny, awkward, and kind of dumb.
If you want to watch a funny movie about the mentally retarded watch I Am Sam. I'm not kidding.