- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Johnny Knoxville rode to fame by pummeling and punishing his wiry frame in the MTV series “Jackass.” Hollywood has been trying to blunt his rough edges ever since.

The latest stage of the Knoxville makeover is “The Ringer,” a farce predicated on both the mocking and the idolatry of Special Olympics athletes.

Here’s the pitch: Mr. Knoxville’s character tries to rig the Special Olympics for some quick cash.

Rather than portraying a degenerate who finds redemption through the athletes’ open hearts, Mr. Knoxville plays a mensch who fakes a mental handicap to help a friend.

Where is the writing team behind “Bad Santa” when you need it?

Poor Steve Barker (Mr. Knoxville) can’t catch a break. He finally moves up the corporate ladder at work, but his first assignment is to fire Stavi (Luis Avalos), the firm’s kindly janitor. Steve persuades Stavi to quit his job and work for him mowing lawns. Before you can say belabored setup, Stavi clips three fingers off his hand and needs expensive re-attachment surgery.

Steve, as his employer, doesn’t have enough cash to foot the bill. So he heeds the advice of his ne’er-do-well uncle Gary (Brian Cox in a role three leagues beneath him) and enlists in the Special Olympics. All he has to do is beat perennial champion pentathlete Jimmy (Leonard Flowers) after Gary puts a fat bet on Jimmy to lose.

Steve isn’t the brightest bulb, but he’ll stand out among the Special Olympians. So he creates Jeffy, his mentally challenged alter ego, who speaks of himself in the third person, wears his pants too high and cocks his head at an odd angle.

Jeffy is no Rain Man, but “The Ringer” rarely requires any heavy lifting by either the cast or the audience.

The charade works — for a while.

Steve convinces a beautiful but apparently dim Special Olympics assistant named Lynn (Katherine Heigl) that he’s the real deal, but the athletes soon see through his disguise. Rather than blow his cover, they ask him to compete anyway, just so long as he can beat the arrogant Jimmy.

Naturally, Steve grows to admire his fellow athletes and develops feelings for Lynn along the way.

“The Ringer” did more than earn approval from the folks behind the Special Olympics. The group oversaw the production and was granted final say over potentially offensive bits.

They needn’t have worried. The film gives the mentally challenged actors around Mr. Knoxville the best lines, and darned if they don’t show some fine comic timing throughout, even if much of it is a mite too precious. Even Mr. Flowers’ turn as Jimmy nicely turns the spoiled athlete stereotype on its head.

It’s the rest of the film that’s far from special.

The medical crisis facing Stavi is beyond absurd, and Mr. Knoxville’s Steve is so bland it’s hard to care how he saves the day.

The film builds toward Steve’s redemptive moment, but his heart already was pure before he ever hiked up his pants.

The big laugh lines early on — “I can’t rig the Special Olympics,” quickly followed by, “I’m gonna rig the Special Olympics” — get played with childlike glee, as if the filmmakers can’t stop giggling over their naughty concept.

What they forgot is that “The Ringer” needs more than an explosive comic premise to win the gold.

**

TITLE: “The Ringer”

RATING: PG:13 (Gross humor, coarse language and comic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Barry W. Blaustein. Written by Ricky Blitt. Executive produced by Bobby and Peter Farrelly.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www2.foxsearchlight.com/theringer/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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