Say this for Johnny Knoxville’s latest attempt at comedic stardom: It has a great sound track. No one can turn on a radio or go to a dance in The Ringer without hearing a classic Todd Rundgren tune or a blissful Belle & Sebastian track or the smooth sounds of forgotten soul greats the Stylistics. Even the score from former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh is peppy and inventive. There hasn’t been movie music this good since the funk and R&B of this summer’s ’70s roller-skating epic Roll Bounce.

It helps to focus on the songs in The Ringer, because there isn’t anything else worth mentioning. The fish-out-of-water comedy attempts to walk a tightrope between an outrageous, potentially offensive premise — a man pretends to be mentally disabled so he can rig the Special Olympics — and a sweet “lesson learned” tale of redemption. The movie’s producers, the Farrelly brothers, have been doing this kind of stuff in their own films for years, using disabilities or handicaps as a way of exploring their heroes’ far more crippling emotional weaknesses. But unlike the sweet-and-sour comedy of, say, Stuck on You, there’s nothing even remotely daring in director Barry Blaustein’s approach to this material.

Knoxville’s character is Steve, a hapless stooge who can’t get any respect at work. He needs to drum up money fast, so he agrees to a plan hatched by his deadbeat uncle Gary (Brian Cox): Steve will enter and rig the Special Olympics so they can bet on the outcome and win a boatload of cash. The already-spazzy Steve transforms himself into “Jeffy,” a “differently abled” track-and-field star. Unfortunately, Steve finds himself falling in love with counselor Lynn (the luminous Katherine Heigl) and becoming friends with the dedicated competitors all around him.

It would’ve helped if we were more invested in Steve’s transformation, if maybe he were a little more of a reprehensible asshole at the beginning of the film instead of a pathetic loser. Instead, The Ringer stumbles around for its first half-hour, unsure of what kind of comedy it’s trying to be. Blaustein doesn’t help matters; Knoxville may not be a skilled actor, but he’s never been as bad as he is in the opening stretch of this film, bugging out his eyes and acting as dopey as Don Knotts. Things improve a bit when he gets to the competition, and the filmmakers take pains to make Knoxville’s friends — played by a mix of Hollywood actors and mentally challenged nonactors — into three-dimensional characters. But the film, as predictable as such dumb ’80s comedies as Soul Man, fails to deliver on either laughs or heart, and all you’re left with are the songs.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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