[Johnny Knoxville] had the foresight to envision what this project could be, and he took the role to a higher level, finding both the charm and the absurdity of this character.
—Barry W. Blaustein
You’d think Johnny Knoxville had just about scraped the bottom of his barrel by now. Between his helming of Jackass and his rumored sleeping with Jessica Simpson (which we’ll presume is not true), this self-abusing, screwy-faced, funky-bodied manchild hardly needs to be looking for more offensive material to whomp upon his fan base. And yet, here he is, in the Farrelly brothers-produced The Ringer, a movie in which his desperate-for-money Steve pretends to be mentally challenged in order to “fix the Special Olympics.” Who knew this was even an option in gross-out humor?
Worse, the movie makes this lowest of the low concept uplifting and sweet. Not that this turn is surprising. As veteran Farrelly watchers know, Bobby and Peter do love their misfits, and love even more to deliver uplift to their viewers. Farrelly films typically line up any number of cringe-inducing offenses, only to come back around to a conventional happy ending: lovers find mutual devotion, siblings find shared satisfaction, and parents and children find ways to tolerate one another. They push past expectations, make viewers wonder why they’re laughing, then let everyone feel okay for taking pleasure in such seeming transgressions. Conservative at last, the films aren’t innovative so much as they’re repetitive.
Just so, The Ringer begins with a crisis to rationalize Steve’s bad behavior and set up for his eventual life lesson. A cubicle worker, Steve thinks he wants more “responsibility,” until it turns out this means he has to fire the company janitor, kindly Stavi (Luis Avalos), who insists there’s nothing he’d rather be doing than scrubbing toilets. His effort to assuage his own guilt backfires when Stavi, while cutting lawns at Steve’s apartment building, loses his fingers in a mower accident. As he has no insurance, Steve is in sudden need of cash, at the very same moment that his Uncle Gary (delirious Brian Cox) needs to pay off his beefy loan shark Michael (Al Train Dias). Equally desperate, they come up with the scheme to defraud the Special Olympics. As Gary sees it, a “normal guy against a bunch of feebs” is a guaranteed win. “You’ll look like Carl Lewis out there,” he gushes.
Actually, the guy who resembles Lewis is Jimmy Washington (real-life Wheaties special athlete and box model Leonard Flowers), the Games superstar for the past six years. Telegenic and not a little arrogant, he rides around in a limo, is attended by secretaries and Nation of Islam-looking bodyguards, and impresses Michael as “the Deion Sanders of retards!” He also hits on all available girls at the Games, ruining the chances for the other male athletes. Asked by a reporter how he feels when he wins all those medals, Jimmy looks right in the camera and beams: “I feel like a happy person. I feel just like all of you.”
Jimmy here articulates The Ringer‘s fundamental point and the lesson Steve will learn, that the “intellectually challenged” and the supposedly unchallenged are only differentiated by dominant perception and beliefs, that “normal” is measurable and desirable. Jimmy’s declaration here is at once a wish and a challenge (though perhaps not so pointed a threat as that made by the addict’s claim to affinity at the end of Trainspotting). If Jimmy can “feel” like he imagines “you” to feel, then he’s already dismantling uninformed, rigid distinctions between “them” and “you.”
And more power to him. Directed by Barry Blaustein (who made the excellent documentary, Beyond the Mat), The Ringer is least obnoxious when it asserts this threat in various ways, and least interesting when it tries (too hard) to assimilate the special folks into the normal folks’ realm. Jimmy’s version of feeling like “you” is often comic and potentially revolutionary, in that he imagines himself as a preening celebrity for fawning outsiders; the fact that the other athletes see through his superciliousness (“Jimmy’s a prick!”) only underlines the do-gooding blindness of the “normals.”
(It’s worth noting as well that the filmmakers were particular about getting approved by specials. Following concerns about W. Earl Brown’s character in There’s Something About Mary—namely, that his violent flare-ups reinforced stereotypes—the Farrellys this time ensured approval ahead of time, by enlisting Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, as executive producer.)
Repeatedly, the movie draws attention to differences in perceptions by special (also termed “intellectually challenged”) and non-special (“normal”), with the former consistently more insightful and compassionate: these guys “get it” in ways their attendants can’t. They recognize, for instance, that Steve’s performance as “Jeffy” is just that (prior to the Games, he bones up on Rain Man, I Am Sam, and Forrest Gump, rehearsing “I loooove you Jenny!” in various stereotypical inflections). While trainers and volunteers all take Jeffy as just another special athlete, the guys in his dorm area bust him within hours: “We know you’re not special!” they protest. When Steve launches into a frantic performance (“Jeffy’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”), the roommates know what they’re looking at. “You’re a faker!” they chide, “A motherfaker!”
And yet, when Steve decides to pack up, apologizing and rueful, the guys call him back. They’re thrilled to have someone on their team who might be able to beat Jimmy, and so decide to train him themselves (as his own training is so plainly inept). They feed him protein shakes (learning that he’s gulping milk, eggs, and meat, Steve promptly barfs) and wake him at 3am to run hurdles and run faster (they encourage this last by setting a growling dog loose on him).
As the beat-Jimmy crew—Glen (Jed Rees), Thomas (Bill Chot), Winston (Geoffrey Arend), Mark (Leonard Earl Howze), Billy (intellectually challenged actor Edward Barbanell), and Rudy (intellectually challenged actor John Taylor)—comes together in common cause, they also show their appreciation of Steve’s dashed acting ambitions. “There’s always Kinkos,” offers one, as they commiserate: “People tell us all the time what we can’t do.” Hmm, frowns Steve, the gears visibly grinding in his brain. Maybe he doesn’t have it so bad as he’s been thinking.
Pleasurable as it is, the boys bonding can’t be enough (though it well could be). The romance must abide as well. Predictably, Steve’s is a bit of a moral puzzle, as it begins while he’s playing “Jeffy,” but whatever dilemma might develop is quickly quashed by the love object’s s perfection (at least in the eyes of her smitten beholder). When Special Olympics volunteer Lynn (Katherine Heigl) meets Jeffy, she’s like most girls in Farrellys movies, meaning, she’s in a wretched relationship with a handsome cad (in this case played by Zen Gesner). Though Gary notices that Steve is becoming too invested in this “piece of ass,” Steve is an earnest good boy after all. This makes him much less “special” than his snickering, witty, and self-knowing new friends.