When you're a kid, the word "retarded" is one of those placeholders you use until you realize that in the world of grown-ups, it is not polite. It, like the word "gay", is most often used on the playground to indicate, "That [particular thing] represents a period in my life that I have grown beyond as a person, however young." It only has a hateful connotation when a child is taught to be hateful with it. In the world of Peter and Bobby Farrelly, however, it is a word used to challenge that artificial construct that is Political Correctness, to provoke us into taking another look at the definitions by which we live and judge the quality of life of others.
The premise of The Ringer almost automatically prompts cries of bad taste: "Johnny Knoxville plays a guy who pretends to be mentally challenged so that he can compete in and fix the Special Olympics." Perhaps the thought of the Jackass star being the vehicle for heightened understanding is just too unfathomable, especially when crap like The Dukes Of Hazzard has marked his high water mark as a movie star. Maybe we have seen one too many Wayans Brothers routines where the disabled are the focus of ridicule. Whatever our predisposition, the Farrellys, longtime champions of the short-shrifted in movies like There's Something About Mary, Shallow Hal and even the stinker Stuck On You, again maintain that the ones with the handicap are the people who would so quickly and callously dismiss someone based on a mathematical misfortune.
Forgive the allusion, but the movie does not quite make it over all its hurdles. The comedy is never cruel, but it does not reach such heights of hilarity that the humanity it is trying to convey gets much beyond novelty. The casting of mentally challenged actors is a nice touch - not nearly the rubbernecking gimmick it was in Crispin Hellion Glover's all-Downs What Is It? - but tapping non-challenged actors to portray the mentally challenged is a mixed bag. Recognizable face and Broken Lizard buddy Geoffrey Arend (whose character seems to be a portrayal of the Farrellys' movie nut friend Rocket) helps dispel the believable illusion that the hilarious Galaxy Quest double-threat of Jed Rees and Bill Chott help create. Arend is talented, but miscast here, and you can almost see him squirming to break out with his best Christopher Walken or Al Pacino like he did on that episode of Undeclared. Rees and Chott, however, are better than W. Earl Brown was as Walter in There's Something About Mary. When Rees, as the assertive Glen, speaks, he provides the spark that propels the less experienced members of the cast to step up and shout, like all the Who's down in Whoville, "We are here!"
Knoxville, though, is all over the road. Part of Fox Searchlight's marketing campaign includes a teaser which mentions many of the acclaimed performances of guys like Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Sean Penn (I Am Sam), but Knoxville plays Steve/"Jeffy" like a bad stand-up mauling a Raymond or a Carl or a Sam. Perhaps Knoxville's well-intended but flat performance is why Family Guy writer Ricky Blitt and director Barry Blaustein make the other athletes pick up on Steve's bullshit so soon (so soon as to seem anticlimactic). If you're going to set up a joke in such a lofty way, find a more convincing way and lead to make it pay off.
Brian Cox is the perfect foil as Knoxville's crass and shifty Uncle Gary who racks up a large gambling debt and puts his mild-mannered nephew up to the scam. Blitt has him say all the ugly things, to which Knoxville, who is eventually fixed by the Special Olympics, can refute after having gotten to know these super troupers. Grey's Anatomy sweetie Katherine Heigl is decent as the Special Olympics coordinator that Knoxville (as Jeffy) falls for, and Luis Avalos (remember him as the balding mustachioed guy from The Electric Company?) has a great bit as Stavi, the widowed janitor friend of Steve's who loses three fingers to a lawnmower under his employ.
No matter how skillfully a plan like this is carried out, it is still a double-edged sword. There will always be someone who hears the use of the word "retard" and doesn't get the context. Some will act self-righteous and reactionary (most without having seen the movie) and others will take it as license to repeat the word in an inappropriate context. This is the kind of comedy you end up looking around the room for permission to laugh at, especially during this opening/vacation week when Special Olympians and their families are likely to attend. Officially, audiences have that permission, as the Special Olympics was involved during most of the movie's production. Unfortunately, it is for this reason that a lot of the movie's bite is dulled. The Farrellys know that great comedy is all about taking chances, but here, they take only some of the chances they need to in order to make what could have been an inconceivably brilliant statement on so much, not following through as completely as they could have. Instead, it's just comfortable, warm and sweet, but considering that the movie had the potential to be an all-out affront - and the bonus points it earns for being original in this season of adaptations, sequels and remakes - it'll do.