A ringer is an impostor, specifically someone who enters a sports competition under false pretenses. In Barry Blaustein’s rude, raucous, slapstick comedy Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) finds himself in improbably desperate straits, surrounded by improbable characters, and forced to commit the most unlikely fraud imaginable, throwing a Special Olympics competition by entering himself under false pretenses. How does Steve get himself into this mess? By a series of outright lies and acts of humorously poor judgment, culminating in his need to come up with money to cover the medical costs to have three fingers sewn back on the hand of the "gardener" Stavi (Luis Avalos), a working-poor father of five.
Even though Steve is portrayed initially as a nondescript office drone, he soon manifests a creative genius for trouble, a record as a one-time high-school track star, and barely explored past dreams of becoming an actor. It turns out Steve has an uncle Gary (Brian Cox) who is a small-time con, something of a loser, who schemes with nephew Steve to make them both some quick cash and to prove what a "real winner" is. In no time, Steve hits upon a plan to pose as "Jeffy," a mentally challenged aspiring athlete, and wrench victory from the jaws of the perpetual Special Olympics star, the African-American Jimmy (real-life 16-year Special Olympian winner Leonard Flowers). Jimmy is the avowed mortal enemy of Special Olympians everywhere, and Flowers’ role is mined to express the outrage of the common folk against the arrogance of every overpaid, over-praised, over-privileged athlete superstar in America.
Posing poorly, painfully, and pathetically, as "Jeffy," Steve is quickly unmasked by the rest of his team-mates. The joke of course is that normal people are far stupider than the mentally challenged Special Olympics athletes. The film strives, endlessly, to be "winning." Steve soon has a love interest (his coach Lynn, played by Katherine Heigl) and further complications force him to do the noble thing, ultimately, for the right reasons. As a feature film The Ringer is primarily a vehicle to showcase Johnny Knoxville’s particular brand of inane and rude humor, which made him famous in the MTV "reality" series Jackass. Knoxville’s fake acting (as "Jeffy") is terrible, almost as terrible as his real acting (as Steve).
Piling one politically incorrect joke on another and piling one slapstick ruse on another all build to normalize the humanity of the mentally challenged. Some of the Special Olympics characters are played by actual Special Olympics athletes, though a few are played by regular actors (such as Jed Rees as Glen). The good-natured absurdity of this film is common to its genre, but The Ringer seems to cross a line. It bears an uncanny resemblance to The Dream Team, a 1989 film with a far better cast (which included Michael Keaton, Peter Boyle, and Christopher Lloyd). In that film a well-meaning but unqualified Michael Keaton decides all a group of mentally ill men need is to escape the sanitarium for a day at the ballpark. Slapstick shenanigans ensue, turning typically on the joke that normal people are crazier than institutionalized loonies.
While appealing to the audience to "play along" by poking fun at stereotypes, both vehicles, The Dream Team and The Ringer, end up creating a variety of misleading stereotypes of their own. However, as The Ringer apparently also serves as a good-will promotional piece for the Special Olympics, perhaps the point is moot. More offensive than the poor humor and bad acting, though, is the cheap arm-twisting created by making this film serve double duty as a promotional piece. After all, the only thing more sacred than Mom and apple pie, according to The Ringer, is the Special Olympics. And who, other than un-American film critics, could take exception to that?