The Ringer

“The Ringer” isn’t a bad movie because it makes fun of retarded people. It’s a bad movie because it makes fun of retarded people, then tries to tell us that making fun of retarded people is bad. Yet the only laughs in the movie come from the mentally challenged characters, most of whom aren’t actually retarded, but are merely regular actors impersonating mentally handicapped people — impersonating them in a way that makes us want to laugh at them.

The film is a twist on the old romantic comedy formula where Man and Woman meet and like each other, but one of them has lied to the other about himself or herself. The truth is eventually revealed, the lied-to party feels betrayed and breaks up with the liar, and they subsequently reconcile. In this case, the lie is that Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) is not actually retarded. He has been pretending to be so he could play in the Special Olympics, handily defeat all the other athletes, and win a fortune by gambling on the events.

Imagine you are the woman he’s lied to. Your name is Lynn (Katherine Heigl), and you’re a heart-of-gold Special Olympics volunteer. You find out the man you’ve grown to have feelings for is not actually retarded; he’s just Johnny Knoxville. How do you recover from that?

Through a very convoluted, illogical series of events, Steve comes to be responsible for raising $28,000 so his friend can have the three fingers he lost reattached. Meanwhile, Steve’s Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) owes a loan shark $40,000. Uncle Gary gets the idea for fixing the Special Olympics, figuring that an able-bodied former track star like Steve can easily beat the gimps who play in those games, right?

Steve thinks it’s wrong, and since he’s the protagonist, we’re meant to agree with him. But he goes along with the plan anyway, and then practices different “retarded” characters in the mirror, complete with hilarious retarded catchphrases. (“Can I have a slice of your doody?”) The movie wants us to laugh at the way he makes fun of retarded people. It also wants us to laugh at the persona he eventually chooses, a lad named Jeffy who has the same speech patterns as Gollum. (“Jeffy is glad to meet Lynn. Jeffy want Lynn be happy.”)

But later in the movie, we’re told in no uncertain terms that mocking the handicapped is wrong. Does that mean we were wrong for laughing earlier? Should we feel chastised by the very movie that made us do it in the first place? I don’t know about you, but I refuse to have my emotions trifled with by Johnny Knoxville.

Upon entering the Special Olympics, Jeffy meets his fellow mentally challenged athletes. One of them, Glen (Jed Rees), is always telling the same joke and rambles a lot. It’s awkward: Are we supposed to laugh at this? If the character were just some doofus, of course we’d laugh. But the character isn’t just some doofus; he has a mental handicap. It seems like the actor is actually retarded, too — should we admire the bravery of casting real Special Olympians?

Whew. Turns out that particular actor is a regular ol’ actor, as are some of the others who play Jeffy’s “special” friends. But a few other actors really are mentally challenged, playing mentally challenged characters. How much of what they’re doing is “acting” and how much is just them being their everyday mentally challenged selves? And if it’s the latter, is it OK to be laughing at them? The sloppy screenplay, by “Family Guy” writer Ricky Blitt, isn’t sure what its tone should be, and director Barry W. Blaustein, in his feature debut, certainly doesn’t know, either.

I’ll tell where I’m not laughing: at Johnny Knoxville. Though he engages in some of his trademark jackassery — getting hit in the crotch with water balloons, landing the wrong way on high-jump bars, and so forth — he is largely the straight man to his mentally challenged friends.

And it’s an interesting thing about those friends. You know how in movies, blind people are always supernaturally good at getting around and knowing their surroundings? And deaf people can always read lips phenomenally well? The retarded characters in this movie are the same way. They’re savvy, quick-witted, sagacious and full of insightful wisdom. The only thing “mentally handicapped” about them is the funny way they talk and dress and shuffle around!

I got a few chuckles out of the film, early on when it was just flat-out making fun of retarded people — hey, I can laugh at “taboo” things as well as the next guy — and later, when some of the athletes cracked a few solid one-liners. But mostly I sat in awe at the film’s wrong-headedness, at its inability to convey even its very basic message about all people being worthy of respect. Sorry, “The Ringer.” This isn’t the Special Olympics. You don’t get a medal just for playing.

D (1 hr., 34 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some vulgarity and innuendo and gross humor.)