The Special Olympics are played for laughs in a sugar-coated comedy that's more Sara Lee than Farrelly.
A Farrelly brothers movie that's not a Farrelly brothers movie, "The Ringer" would like to have it both ways.
Produced by but not written or directed by the siblings responsible for the boundary-goosing "There's Something About Mary", this wannabe daring comedy about a man who attempts to "fix" the Special Olympics strains for that patented naughty and nice balance with squirmingly squishy results.
As calibrated by director Barry W. Blaustein and screenwriter Ricky Blitt, the Johnny Knoxville vehicle is neither the edgy laugh riot it thinks it is nor the ultimately inspirational eye-opener it aspires to be, despite being given the blessings of Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, who takes an executive producer credit.
The neither-here-nor-there end product will inevitably result in nothing special for Fox Searchlight, which took on the film after the bigger studios shied away from the subject matter.
Knoxville, in a role that would have been a better fit a decade ago for an Adam Sandler or a Jim Carrey, plays Steve Barker, a mild-mannered guy who quits his desk job when he's instructed to fire his company's longtime janitor, Stavi (Luis Avalos).
Guilt-ridden, Steve hires Stavi to do his gardening, but when a lawnmower mishap results in Stavi parting company with several of his fingers, Steve has to make good on his promise of full medical insurance coverage.
Unable to come up with a better idea, he reluctantly goes along with his smarmy Uncle Gary's (Brian Cox) scheme of fixing the Special Olympics by entering the competition with the intention of defeating the event's odds-on favorite, the six-time Gold Medal pentathlete Jimmy (real-life competitor Leonard Flowers).
Thus Steve becomes the mentally challenged Jeffy, but while Lynn Sheridan (Katherine Heigl), the sweet-natured Special Olympics volunteer, takes a shine to him, his other teammates quickly catch on to his unconvincing ruse.
But rather than turn him in, the others, wanting to see the arrogant Jimmy taken down a few notches, help make Jeffy/Steve into a viable contender and, in the process, teach him a life-changing lesson about courage and integrity.
That's at least what the picture wishes to say, but Blaustein, who helmed the entertaining wrestling docu "Beyond the Mat", and Blitt, whose TV credits include "Family Guy" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show", fail to make both the comedic elements sharp enough and the stereotype-shattering aspects understated enough to effectively bring home its worthy message.
It's the kind of tricky balancing act that the Farrelly brothers, who have accorded respect to special needs individuals in films like "Mary" and "Stuck on You", used to excel in before moving on to more conventional fare like "Fever Pitch".
Part of that problem here is that former "Jackass" Knoxville lacks the necessary core affability of a Sandler or Carrey or Will Ferrell to strike the necessary audience-identifying chord.
And while the decision to have both actors and real-life "diffabled" individuals playing Knoxville's teammates may have been a noble idea in theory, in practice it's a bit uncomfortable watching some of those more obvious impersonations.
If "The Ringer" had the guts of a "Murderball", all those good intentions might not have been squandered on this spineless production.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures presentsa Conundrum Entertainment production
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Screenwriter: Ricky Blitt
Executive producer: Tim Shriver
Director of photography: Mark Irwin
Production designer: Arlan Jay Vetter
Editor: George Folsey Jr.
Costume designer: Lisa Jensen
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Steve Barker/Jeffy: Johnny Knoxville
Gary Barker: Brian Cox
Lynn: Katherine Heigl
Glen: Jed Rees
Thomas: Bill Chott
Billy: Edward Barbanell
Jimmy: Leonard Flowers
Stavi: Luis Avalos
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 94 minutes
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