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Steve Barker is a big softie. Given the task of firing his company's janitor, a widower with five children, Steve instead hires him to mow the lawns at his apartment complex, paying the man out of his own pocket. But a lawnmower accident puts Steve on the hook for thousands of dollars of the man's medical bills. Enter Uncle Gary, who's already on the hook to a local bookie to the tune of $40,000.
What to do? Uncle Gary, ever the schemer, comes up with a plan for a surefire sports bet: rig the Special Olympics, the track-and-field competition for mentally disabled people. Steve is not actually mentally disabled, of course, so he'll have to fake it to compete against people Gary perceives to be losers. Steve joins the Special Olympics as "Jeffy" with an eye to dethrone the reigning pentathlon champion, Jimmy, whom Gary will bet against.
Along the way, Steve becomes an even bigger softie. He comes to see the Special Olympians as individual people rather than a class of "retards," as Uncle Gary calls them—in his milder moments. Steve also falls for Lynn, one of the team's chaperones, and finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her. Can he keep up the ruse? Will he be able to tell Lynn his true feelings for her? Will he win the pentathlon? While not predictable in its overall route, there's little mystery to this story's final destination.
The Special Olympics gave its blessing to this movie, being granted unprecedented sign-off rights on the final script and even on any ad-libs that might have been caught on film. This turns out to be a mixed blessing. (More on this in my "Conclusion.") The organization's chief goal, to humanize the mentally disabled, is achieved admirably. There's no condescension, no "aw, ain't they cute?" moment. The Special Olympians share the same foibles and virtues as the rest of humanity.
There is also an emphasis on good sportsmanship. For example, during one track event when a runner stumbles and falls, the other runners do not press the advantage; they all stop to help him to his feet before continuing the race. Lynn and the other chaperones and coaches are self-giving and tireless in their support for the mentally disabled. (Lynn's dedication arises from her love for her deceased brother, who had Down Syndrome.)
Feeling guilty about his ruse, Steve goes to confession in a Catholic church. He prefaces his confession by saying that he's done something really bad, but the priest assures him: "There's no sin unforgivable for those who seek redemption"—just before punching and kicking him upon hearing the heinousness of the admission. Later, a guilt-ridden Steve says, "We're going to hell."
Uncle Gary prays to win a bet. An athlete, apropos nothing, says, "Did you know Christ was a Jew?" Another tells Steve, "You're almost Christ-like."
Uncle Gary asks a guilty-looking Steve if he "knocked up an entire cheerleading squad." He also makes several crude cracks about masturbation, oral sex, massages (in a prayer) and fondling. He refers to Lynn with a crude sexual insult.
One of the Special Olympians, realizing that Steve is a fake, says, "I've seen better acting in a porno film." He then jokes about Pamela Anderson's breasts while simulating fondling them. An athlete is advised to bring "protection" on a date. A couple makes out in a movie theater, and a Special Olympian mistakenly calls a woman a "hooker lady."
Steve serves as the fall guy for various pratfalls throughout the movie, including skull-cracking tumbles onto a wet floor and off a ladder. He's hit full in the face by a soccer ball. A priest punches him, throws him out a door and kicks him down concrete steps. He crashes groin-first into a track hurdle. And as part of a training regimen, his friends pummel him in the abdomen—they're wearing boxing gloves—but one blow misses and hits him in the groin. Lynn slaps him.
A bookie's goons smash Uncle Gary's head into a bar. An athlete misses the landing mat after a high jump. We hear a lawnmower's engine strain and stall when a man sticks his hand beneath it. As Steve rushes the man to the emergency room, he drops a plastic bag containing his severed fingers. We later see the man's bandaged hand with all the middle digits missing.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and one use of the euphemism "frikken." One s-word and several other profanities, including "a--hole" and "d--n." A man is called a "pr-ck," and God's name is abused about eight times. Uncle Gary constantly refers to the Special Olympians with cruel variations of "retard."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Uncle Gary always has the stub of a cigar in his mouth. Various people drink beer and other alcoholic beverages in a sports bar. A character complains that he doesn't have any pot.
Other Negative Elements
A janitor cleans a filthy toilet with his bare hands, and an executive crudely—and graphically—complains about men not putting up the toilet seat before urinating. Uncle Gary talks about bowel movements and converts a large foam hand—the kind that sports fans wield—into an obscene gesture. Steve vomits—graphically.
After beating up Steve in revulsion at his scam, the priest then goes to a bookie and places a bet on him to win. The Special Olympians, with Steve's connivance, break the rules by sneaking off-campus to see a movie. A group of athletes goes along with Steve's plot just because they're eager to see Jimmy lose.
The Ringer captures a puzzling aspect of filmmakers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, known mainly for directing crude fare such as There's Something About Mary; Me, Myself & Irene; Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. They both dive for the sewer when writing, producing and directing movies, but both seem to have big hearts. They're crude, rude and socially unacceptable, but they love the downtrodden and the outcast. About this film, for which they serve as executive producers, Peter says, "I wanted this movie out there. It's very funny, but I also saw the potential for changing people's perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities." The "funny" part is debatable, but it's true that Peter is a longtime volunteer with Best Buddies, a mentoring program for the developmentally disabled, and he said that he wanted to show that such people are multifaceted and fun.
The Special Olympics apparently agreed. "The risk was that it would further the stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities as the brunt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes," Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver told CNN. "But the payoff was even more valuable." As noted above, the Special Olympics was granted almost unprecedented control over the making of The Ringer, and there's a link from the film's Web site to that of the Special Olympics. The film includes about 150 disabled athletes and actors, the largest population of developmentally disabled people ever portrayed in a mainstream movie, the Farrellys claim.
Their intentions are great. Their execution is, as always, not. Once again, then, the infamous Farrelly brothers have squandered an opportunity to do some genuine good.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Johnny Knoxville as Steve Barker/"Jeffy"; Katherine Heigl as Lynn; Brian Cox as Uncle Gary; Edward Barbanell as Billy; Bill Chott as Thomas; Jed Rees as Glen; Geoffrey Arend as Winston; Leonard Earl Howze as Mark; John Taylor as Rudy; Leonard Flowers as Jimmy
Barry W. Blaustein ( )