Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

Johnny Knoxville, Katherine Heigl, Brian Cox, Leonard Flowers
Barry Blaustein
Ricky Blitt
Rated PG-13
94 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
 "The Ringer" Review 
I hate the word "special."

I always have. From early childhood, I've developed a sort of detached relationship with words such as special, disabled, challenged and/or any other word that tries to imply that I am, in fact, somehow less than you.

I've avoided the "Special Olympics" for that very reason, participating only once, and even the "Paralympics" seems somehow condescending.

After watching Johnny Knoxville's unexpected hit film, "The Ringer," I am facing the prospect that I may actually have been wrong all these years.

The fact that I am considering my lifelong relationship with the word "special" speaks volumes about the quality and heart of "The Ringer," a film in which Knoxville plays Steve Barker, a man who poses as a mentally disabled man so that he can "fix" the Special Olympics.

We meet Steve as he is talking to himself along with a self-empowerment tape (voiced by Jesse Ventura) in his work cubicle. In a spontaneous moment of self-empowerment, Steve barges into his boss's office and demands a promotion. His boss promotes him immediately by saying "Go fire the janitor." The firing goes badly for the non-assertive Steve, and Stavi ends up hired with benefits to mow the lawn at Steve's condo. This in turn (in fine Farrelly fashion) leads to a lawnmower mishap resulting in the potential loss of Stavi's fingers.

Thus, a tasteless experiment in fraud is swiftly turned into a desperate act of nobility as Steve explores his only options for raising the money to help Stavi and an uncle also an uncle with a gambling debt.

While "The Ringer" is distributed by Fox Searchlight, it often feels like the film "Pumpkin" would have become had it been produced by a major studio. As scripted by Ricky Blitt ("The Family Guy" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show"), "The Ringer" frequently goes for sweetness over satire and fun, easygoing humor over tasteless, obvious humor.

The fact that "Special Olympics" participated in the production of this film, and openly supported the final result strongly indicates the degree to which the film laughs "with" these athletes and not at them.

While it is a tad frustrating to have the film play it safe so consistently, it is also amazingly refreshing to have a film so centered on "disabled" athletes that never treats anyone as particularly special.

"The Ringer," of course, is a film that requires a tremendous amount of suspension of belief. However, the film has such a good heart to it that it becomes nearly impossible not to just surrender to it.

The typical scenarios are all here...the highly resented "superstar" special athlete named Jimmy who everyone wants to see lose and, of course, Jeffy himself falls for a pretty volunteer named Lynn (Kathleen Heigl) with an attractive, deceptive fiance (think "Pumpkin").

Even the attraction between Jeffy and Lynn is played quite innocently, and Heigl (currently of "Grey's Anatomy") does a winning job of developing a young woman who is compassionate, caring and emotionally vulnerable.

The film wisely utilizes many real life "special" athletes who, in fact, don't appear that special. Their performances, across the board, are intelligent, funny, sincere and absent of stereotypes.

Knoxville himself, whom I've trashed on more than one occasion, is remarkably entertaining here in a role that is both physically and mentally demanding. Does he necessarily nail the part of an athlete with developmental challenges? Ummm. No. However, he does bring a remarkable spirit, energy and dignity to the role that is constantly entertaining and refreshing. I never thought I would ever say this, but it's true...a Johnny Knoxville film brought me to tears in one particularly touching scene.

"The Ringer" is a simple, entertaining comedy that should have actually been a great one. While the film offers quite a few obvious Farrelly touches, it would have been a funnier, slightly edgier film had the Farrelly Brothers actually directed. Likewise, Blitt's script, while balanced, never really catches up to the film's marvelous performances and energy. Just once, I wanted Blitt's script to make the risky choice instead of the safe one. Alas, that never happened and I often felt as if the actors were forcibly being held back by a script that never trusted its characters.

I've always hated the word "special." Yet, today, I called up my local Special Olympics and offered to volunteer. Now, that's funny.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic