Is it possible for a comedy centered on people with a disability to be sensitive and respectful of them and still be funny? For years Peter and Bobby Farrelly have featured characters with mental and physical handicaps in their movies, even casting people (often non-actor friends of theirs) with genuine disabilities in small roles, but as writers and directors they’ve never placed these characters in the foreground as they are in The Ringer, on which the Farrellys served as executive producers. In The Ringer, Johnny Knoxville (the destitute man’s Vince Vaughn and, really, it would be worth saving one’s pennies for the upgrade) plays hapless Steve Barker, a nice but not-too-bright guy who, in order to help a friend, agrees to his uncle Gary’s fiendish plan to make a bushel of money by faking a disability and winning the pentathlon in the Special Olympics. Like Say It Isn’t So, another movie the brothers produced but didn’t write or direct, the overall feel is much like their own projects but, also like the earlier film, the result is far less enjoyable. Say It Isn’t So went too broad and too far; it crossed the line from the Farrellys’ juvenile uninhibitedness into downright meanness. The problem with The Ringer is the opposite: It’s too controlled, too inhibited; it doesn’t go as far as it needs to.
Underlying the Farrellys’ obvious bad taste is a wide streak of humanism, a way of seeing everyone from Cameron Diaz to the seriously malformed as part of the same continuum rather than putting them into discrete categories; that worldview must have been what attracted them to this project. The Ringer was made with the approval and cooperation of the Special Olympics, and it’s scrupulously kind to its developmentally disabled characters. When Knoxville, in the guise of “Jeffy,” enters the competition and meets the other athletes, two of them are played by Edward Barbanell and John Taylor, semiprofessional actors who have Down syndrome, and a number of smaller roles are also played by people with disabilities, several of whom are previous Special Olympians. I actually didn’t know until after the movie whether some actors were or weren’t disabled, which isn’t meant as a dig at them; it’s just that the movie treats all the actors the same way and that the performances are equally credible. While the handicapped characters are mocked for their eccentricities, they are never belittled; they actually get most of the clever lines in the movie. They’re made out to be more reasonable and clear-eyed than Knoxville, who, of course, must learn that they possess greater dignity and complexity than he — and by implication the audience — ever guessed. When Lynn (Katherine Heigl from “Grey’s Anatomy”), a volunteer on whom Knoxville has a crush, sets “Jeffy” up on a blind date with a developmentally disabled woman named Yolie (Nicole E. Bradley), she’s put off by his cheap dumb-guy act; she clearly feels she’s too good a catch to waste her time on Knoxville.
The problem, though, is that Knoxville doesn’t really need to learn much about the people he meets — he never had any real bias against the disabled to begin with, so there’s no conflict. From the beginning, the film draws a line between the good guys like Knoxville and the bad guys, the insensitive characters like Gary (Brian Cox, playing his slimiest role since L.I.E.), who casually uses words like “retard” and “feeb.” Worse than the lack of dynamism in Knoxville’s character, though, is that the prejudiced jerks like Gary and David (Zen Gesner), Lynn’s quickly dispatched fiance, don’t change either. The movie decries their prejudice and shows them to be real heels — David doesn’t just condescend to the athletes, he treats Lynn like she’s stupid, too (though he may have a point — the athletes quickly figure out that Knoxville is an imposter, but she’s credulous right up to the reveal) — but at the end of the film they’re no more enlightened than they were at the start. The implicit suggestion is that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who judge and mock the disabled and those who don’t, and that neither group is likely to change much, so they’re best off just avoiding each other. If Knoxville had started off prejudiced and insulting like Gary, his growing respect for the other athletes would have some meaning, but that would require the filmmakers to let us initially dislike Knoxville, and they’re unwilling to take those kinds of chances.
Really, they don’t take any chances at all: The plot is derived from a thousand other movies in which an imposter falls in love and must persuade his beloved to forgive him after she learns of his deception, movies that run the gamut from near-greats like Tootsie to disasters like The Secret of My Success and Soul Man, but The Ringer is a pretty good example of the law of diminishing returns. Every development, from Knoxville’s increasing inner conflict over the deceit to his obligatory self-unmasking to Lynn’s inevitable forgiveness, is predictable within the first 20 minutes, and the filmmakers (director Barry W. Blaustein and screenwriter Ricky Blitt) do nothing to shake the cobwebs off this old, old story. They don’t even create characters, only types. Lynn is written as a carbon copy of Cameron Diaz’s Mary, but Heigl, though very pretty, lacks Diaz’s spark. Knoxville is nothing more or less than a likable dope, too dull to involve the audience. And the athletes are noble and inspirational; they’re not made completely saintly, thank God — they can be irritable and even bullying at times — but the overall view of them is still condescending. In trying to give them the respect they seldom get, Blitt’s script goes overboard and makes them almost superhuman.
The film is full of special pleading for the athletes: It makes sense when they outclass Knoxville in a race or a high jump — since he’s up against people who clearly are in better shape than him, we wonder why he didn’t expect it to begin with — but when we see that they’re smarter and funnier than him, it feels contrived — even Johnny Knoxville should be able to keep up with the developmentally disabled. What little humor is directed at them is gentler than that directed at Knoxville or any of the “normal” characters and gentler than we get in the movies the Farrellys make themselves; while Blitt and Blaustein’s desire to treat the disabled with respect is laudable, it’s led them to neuter their movie. When a Farrelly-style gross-out comedy works it’s because their childish naughtiness, their unfettered access to the id, makes us laugh at our own anxieties and taboos; we laugh because we know that these are things we’re not supposed to laugh at. The Ringer fails because it points and says, “This you may laugh at. This you may not”; it’s all superego.
The Ringer plays like the low points in a Farrelly brothers movie; like them, when it gets sincere, it gets messagey and sappy. But in all fairness, it took some guts and a lot of goodwill for Blitt and Blaustein to even attempt a movie like this; from the beginning they were walking a tightrope between going too far and being cruel and not going far enough and being dull. It’s to their credit that they fell over on the side of kindness, but that doesn’t make the movie any more fun to watch.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Ringer / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()