The Ringer

The Ringer (2005)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Katherine Heigl
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes

Johnny Knoxville portrays Steve Barker, a placid company drone (his athletic and acting days long behind him) who wishes for career advancement. His boss eventually relents and gives Steve a job firing people. Being the good guy he is, Steve struggles with his new responsibility and cannot bring himself to fire the company's janitor, a nice older man named Stavi. Steve offers Stavi a better job tending his lawn, with more money and benefits. Of course, Steve lacks these resources and, when Stavi has an accident with the lawn mower (losing a few fingers in the process); Steve is faced with footing the medical bills in order to reattach the missing appendages.

Steve looks to his sleazy, crude and garish Uncle Gary (the always great Brian Cox, who is slumming here) to help with covering some of the cost. Gary has his own problems though, owing some bookies a hefty sum. So, he concocts a scheme to enter Steve into the Special Olympic games (with Steve posing as a mentally handicapped athlete), in order to beat the reigning champion, an ego-obsessed, conceited jock named Jimmy Washington. Betting everything he owns on Jimmy losing the gold, Gary and his ringer infiltrate the Special Olympic village, when suddenly the mentally challenged athletes figure out Steve's ruse. Instead of outing him, they decide to help conceal his real identity, since they're sick of seeing Jimmy win all the medals. This sends a mixed message, since the Special Olympics is all about having fun and promoting tolerance, yet the athletes themselves don't tolerate their successful competitor. But I digress…

"The Ringer," despite the potentially crass premise, is a cookie-cutter comedy that offers very few surprises. Every cliché known to man peeks through; from the standard love interest Lynn (Katherine Heigl) with the pretty-boy fiancé who cheats behind her back and talks down to the Special Olympians, to the never-ending sport training montages, all the way to the final track race where we wonder who will win. While these are staples of the genre, we've all seen them thousands of times before and they continue bore. Some of this could be forgiven if the rest of the film had legs to stand on, but, unfortunately, it stumbles quite often.

For one thing, Steve is not the most sympathetic of characters and Johnny Knoxville's performance strains credibility. His smirking, self-aware mannerisms never gain our trust. When he's not sleepwalking through scenes, he's awkwardly trying to pretend he's mentally challenged. A more subtle comedic performer could have added more depth to the character and elicited some caring, but with Knoxville in the lead, all I felt was indifference. Maybe all those years on "Jackass," administering electric shocks into his nether regions and being shot with bean-bags have turned him into a walking zombie. Plus, Steve is too nice a character who he never changes or grows throughout the course of the film. He's a nice guy at the beginning of the movie and a nice guy at the end. Uncle Gary is a far more interesting character, always running his mouth in off-putting ways, highlighting his ignorance and crassness. Maybe if Steve's character had these prejudiced qualities, the film would resonate more (or at least redeem his character, giving him a progressive arc).

Another problem lies with Stavi's character. His few scenes are limited to the beginning of the film and although we're given a brief glimpse of his family and an explanation of his monetary woes, we aren't given any substantial reason to pull for him. This pretty much negates our emotional connection to his unfortunate situation.

The comedy is also extremely routine; relying on tired slapstick that involves Knoxville falling down or slamming into various objects. Most of the comedic beats are relegated to the mentally challenged characters (comprised of amateurs and professional actors) that mispronounce words, spout pop-culture references or, in one moment that made me laugh, yell expletives. The only surprises are spurred from these characters, which are given most of the funny lines. These laugh-out loud moments are few and far between though. The subject matter is rife with potential and there is a funny movie somewhere in "The Ringer," possibly one just featuring the supporting characters, who are far more effective and natural than the awkward Knoxville.

The film also falters because there is no threat to any of the characters. The track star, Jimmy, is egotistical and stuck up, but does that make him a "bad" guy? Lynn's boyfriend is a cheat and a liar, but he's played so numbingly inert that he practically evaporates from the screen. And the bookies push Gary's face into the counter of a bar, but that's as physical as their threats get. They're portrayed as such broad caricatures that their violence never carries any weight. Ultimately, this hampers whatever sense of conflict the film attempts to set up.

Tonally, "The Ringer" begins to veer into a saccharine direction, masquerading as a feel-good movie. While I cannot deny the importance of a message of tolerance and respect in regards to mentally handicapped people, these shifts seemed forced and disjointed. It's almost as if the filmmaker's didn't trust the audience to come away with their own opinions, so they shove the message down our throats (especially during the denouement, when the mentally challenged group "The Kids of Widney High" sing Aretha Franklin's "Respect").

If this isn't enough, "The Ringer" tosses out various subplots that seemingly come and go as they please, usually whenever there is a lull in action. This compounds to the disjointed nature, since we're left wondering where characters disappeared to and how certain situations are going to be resolved (like a fellow athlete's crush on a girl and Uncle Gary's missing final confrontation with the bookies). The director, Barry W. Blaustein, resolves these subplots with short, almost cast-aside scenes. What this accomplishes is a rough, thrown-together feeling instead of a solid, coherent whole.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, under their Fox Searchlight banner, presents "The Ringer" in both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full screen. Black levels are well done, with nice shadow delineation in the clothing, adding suitable depth. Color saturation is represented fine, with skin tones appearing natural. Red and blues proliferate the film and are strikingly crisp, especially during interior scenes. The print is clean, free of grain and artifacts, with no blemishes apparent. Overall, the transfer for "The Ringer" is terrific and pristine.

The soundtrack is presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital, as well as Spanish Dolby Surround. Dialogue and non-diegetic sounds are relegated to the three front channels. The acoustic guitar based score is supplied by former "Devo" frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and utilizes the front channels, creating a dissonant quality. The rear channels spark to life during various pop and hip-hop songs that appear on the soundtrack. Dialogue appears natural and clear, free of hiss or distortion. Subtitle options included are English, Spanish and French.

For the Special Features, we have a screen-specific commentary by director Barry W. Blaustein, screenwriter Ricky Blitt, producer Peter Farrelly and actors Johnny Knoxville, Edward Barbanell and John Taylor. As usual with commentaries this large, we get people talking over each other and, since most of these guys are funny, lots of laughs. I actually found the commentary more entertaining than the film and, dare I say, even more touching. Two of the mentally challenged actors appear here and shed some light on their lives before and after the film. Jokes are bounced back and forth, information about the Special Olympics and their involvement is touched on and editing mistakes are discussed. Everyone seems to be having a good time, with loads of self-deprecating humor tossed about and the fun atmosphere proves infectious.

Next up are 16 deleted scenes, their combined times coming in at just under twenty minutes. The scenes are rough in quality, with timecode running underneath the images. A couple are just extended sequences, while most are stand-alone scenes. There is a reason why these weren't included in the movie, since most are neither funny nor revealing. However, the "David Tries To Bust Jeffy" scene adds interesting layers to Lynn's boyfriend, where he gets to show some actual emotion instead of just standing around with a vacant look in his eyes.

Also included are a couple of featurettes: "Let the Games Begin: A Look At 'The Ringer'" which is a 7 minute behind-the-scenes look at the film. Nothing earth-shattering is revealed here, just the standard talking head interviews with the cast and crew. What is interesting though is the apparent camaraderie between the mentally challenged actors and those around them. Seeing the joy they brought to the set and the dedication to their roles (plus their comedic ad-libbing) once again made me realize how dominating they were in the film. In a better world, they would be the main focus of "The Ringer" instead of Knoxville's character. The "Special Olympics Featurette" runs a little over 3 minutes and is a montage showing the history of the Special Olympics (focusing on the different athletic categories), interspersed with titles providing facts about the organization and how much it has grown over the years. Also included are brief, inspirational messages from Special Olympians who offer positive thoughts. Lastly, there is "A Message From Tim Shriver, Special Olympics Chairman" which appears to be older promotional material from the organization. The quality looks to be from a video source and seems odd to be included here. Regardless, Mr. Shriver speaks about the Special Olympics, providing insight to the meaning behind them, while various montages of different sports and competitors flashes across the screen, some of which have been repeated from the previous featurette. This short extra material runs a little over 2 minutes.

Produced by the Farrelly Brothers, "The Ringer" has none of their anarchist spirit and instead arrives DOA. Even with a writer from "Family Guy" supplying the script, the film is completely toothless. The main characters are uninteresting and we never care about what they're doing or what they're going to do. As usual, Brian Cox gives a superb performance, as do the mentally challenged actors. If the film had focused on these fringe characters, then "The Ringer" would have been more successful. If you're looking for a mind-numbingly bad film, then go out and rent this. Otherwise, do something, anything, because life is too short to waste watching this tripe.