1 star (out of four)
In the first half-hour of the Special Olympics comedy "The Ringer," star Johnny Knoxville shakes his head and says, "This is wrong. This is so wrong."
Even in church, when he confesses a plan to enter and rig the Special Olympics, a priest cold-cocks him.
But just admitting a wrong doesn't make it right.
Produced in part by Bobby and Peter Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), "The Ringer" is perhaps the first comedy in history to come with a permission slip to laugh. Two of them, in fact: one from the National Down Syndrome Society and another from the Special Olympics. Each includes documents of endorsement in the film's press kit.
Both organizations were consulted on the movie, which casts Knoxville as Steve, a pure-hearted regular guy, and Brian Cox as his scheming uncle Gary, attempting to fix the Special Olympics. Steve enters the competition as "Jeffy" to raise money for a friend's medical bills; Gary needs to pay off a bookie.
"Come on, a normal guy against a bunch of feebs? You'll look like Carl freakin' Lewis out there," Gary says.
Even though "The Ringer" garnered approval from the Special Olympics ("based on conclusions reached after two years of analysis," according to the release), the movie still mines laughter from Hollywood types acting like athletes with disabilities. But Knoxville, Jed Rees and Bill Chott act daffy and more impaired than their counterparts, and that never sat right with me.
This may not be the equivalent of acting in blackface, but it's awfully close. The actors draw from aged stereotypes, not from the "special" actors (especially standout Edward Barbanell, who has Down syndrome) with whom they share screen time.
Yes, there are some genuine laughs, mostly at the expense of bigoted uncle Gary. But for every earned joke, there's a gross miscalculation. Example: Steve's nemesis is six-time pentathlete Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), the only major African-American character in the film. So naturally, he's a rich, vain, spoiled sports star whose screen entrances are heralded by blaring hip-hop music.
But ultimately, it's the performances that grate. Steve studies "Sling Blade," "Rain Man" and "The Best of Chevy Chase" in order to "pass" in the Special Olympics dorms. His acting touchstones include:
1. Talking in the third person, as in "Jeffy likes apples!"
2. Adopting a facial tic.
3. Erasing the use of articles from his vocabulary.
You'll notice that few of his intellectually impaired co-stars have these problems.Knoxville cashes in on his "Jackass" fame, getting slapped in the face and smacked in the crotch with a water balloon. But he's getting paid for it, and it's his first time headlining solo in a film.
The Special Olympics is also getting something. The group endorsed the film because it believes "the movie represents a unique opportunity to harness the power of mainstream mass media to achieve a quantum change in public understanding of, and attitudes toward, individuals with intellectual disabilities," according to their press release.
This is more than a decade after "Life Goes On," ABC's Emmy-winning show starring Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome. "The Ringer" isn't a "quantum" step forward; it's a step back.
Comedy shouldn't be based on "analysis" -- I don't want a permission slip to laugh. I just want a funny movie to be emotionally touched and react honestly. But in all its lobbying for our laughter, "The Ringer" feels too lawyered-up and politically positioned to trigger much laughter at all.
Directed by Barry W. Blaustein; screenplay by Ricky Blitt; cinematography by Mark Irwin; production designed by Arlan Jay Vetter; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; edited by George Folsey Jr.; produced by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, John Jacobs and Bradley Thomas. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 23. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: PG-13 (crude and sexual humor, language and some drug references).
Steve Barker -- Johnny Knoxville
Gary Barker -- Brian Cox
Lynn -- Katherine Heigl
Glen -- Jed Rees
Thomas -- Bill Chott
Billy -- Edward BarbanellCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times