Forever on the front lines in the war against political correctness, the Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary, Shallow Hal) have a knack for pushing the bounds of good taste, then pulling back into sweetness when the laughs threaten to become unpalatable. The chancier the subject matter, the more sugar is required to make it go down. The Farrellys only produced The Ringer, a comedy about a broke pencil-pusher who "fixes" the Special Olympics, but it could easily belong on the sugary side of their oeuvre, since a premise that potentially unsavory requires a lot of backtracking. For this reason, the film doesn't have a lot of time to be funny before the shame kicks in, since the comedy mainly stems from Johnny Knoxville trying to pass himself off as a mentally challenged athlete named "Jeffy." There are clearly lessons to be learned here, plenty of them, yet the apologies are surprisingly disarming when they arrive, because the film's irreverence and genuine warmth come without a trace of condescension.
The long-winded opening, which itself becomes joke fodder later in the film, finds Knoxville as a cubicle-dweller lobbying for a promotion. He gets it, but under the condition that he fire the company's longtime janitor (Luis Avalos), a middle-aged man with no wife and five young mouths to feed. Lacking the will to let the man go, Knoxville hires him as his personal lawn-care worker at an increased salary and benefits, but when the poor guy loses three fingers to a lawnmower blade, someone has to pay for the reconstructive surgery. Enter Knoxville's uncle Brian Cox, a degenerate gambler who comes up with the perfect idea to get both of them out of hock: Knoxville will enter himself in the Special Olympics and best six-time defending champion "Jimmy" in the Pentathlon event. With half-assed training in athletics (he ran track in high school) and performance (he prepares by watching Forrest Gump, Rain Man, and I Am Sam on video), Knoxville tries to infiltrate the event, but his guilt intensifies when he meets his eager competitors and a trusting volunteer (Katherine Heigl).
If anything, The Ringer doesn't go far enough to exploit its edgy premise, but it does have two conceits that consistently pay off: Knoxville turns out to be a lesser athlete than his competitors, and he's so bad at acting "retarded" that only the unchallenged buy into his ruse. This way, he can still ham it up without seeming mentally or physically superior to anyone. Made with the support of the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Society—a disclaimer emblazoned on the press materials—the film recalls Murderball in its frank, politically incorrect treatment of the disabled, which is far more dignifying than the uplift of inspirational dramas on the subject. The Ringer eventually turns into putty, but at least it has the courage to drop a few bombs before repenting.