Going through 'The Ringer' and looking ahead 

Believe it or not, there are still a few sacred cows roaming Hollywood pastures, subjects that are not yet (and may never be) eligible for mockery. The Holocaust immediately springs to mind, as does 9/11, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will most likely make that list. And it's usually inappropriate to make light of the mentally and physically challenged (the visually impaired seem to be fair game, for some odd reason), so I can almost hear the jaws dropping during this pitch meeting:

"Yeah, so it's called The Ringer, and it's about a guy who pretends to be retarded so he can compete in the Special Olympics! And we want Johnny Knoxville to play the guy! Ooh, let's release it at Christmastime!"

Executive-produced by the Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary), who know a thing or two about navigating the tightrope of taste, The Ringer follows Steve (Knoxville, stifling his abundant charisma), a cubicle-dwelling shlub who, through a ridiculous series of events, finds himself the linchpin in a get-rich-quick scheme. Steve's slimy uncle Gary --- portrayed by the indispensable Brian Cox (Rushmore) --- bullies Steve into using his opportune acting and track backgrounds to rig the Special Olympics, which, also serendipitously, is just about to begin.

So Steve becomes the developmentally disabled Jeffy (I can't tell you his last name --- it's the funniest bit in the movie) and moves into the athletes' village, where it takes very little time for his competitors to spot the flim-flam. They don't rat him out, however, as they would like to see cocky perennial champ Jimmy --- described by the knuckle-dragging Uncle Gary as "the Deion Sanders of retards" --- taken down a peg. Of course, there's a girl (Katherine Heigl, from Grey's Anatomy), and of course, Jeffy/Steve's Special Olympian friends, played by a combination of professional and nonprofessional actors, teach him a couple of life lessons and put him on the straight-and-narrow.

To the credit of writer Ricky Blitt (The Family Guy) and director Barry W. Blaustein (the wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat), the disabled characters don't come off as one-dimensional saints; to be honest, a couple of them are real jerks. But the rest of the cliché-riddled --- though inoffensive --- The Ringer plays out exactly as you would expect (if you've given it any thought at all), with the notable exceptions of a dreadful priest and the surprising State of Texas, which is apparently a magical land where rednecks and goombahs huddle together in bars to watch the Special Olympics.

My little sister got put through The Ringer with me --- as far as the audience went, we were it --- and I heard her mutter something about the film being "wrong on so many levels." But The Ringer received the stamp of approval from the Special Olympics, with honcho Tim Shriver getting an executive producer credit. Perhaps Mr. Shriver can next do something about the condescending name of his organization: The phrase "Special Olympics" is even more simplistic than this movie.

2006 lurks just over the horizon, so it's not too early to plan your moviegoing budget for the coming year. Here are a few films that might be worth socking away for, as well as their tentative release dates:

The Da Vinci Code: It will probably take you more time to watch the movie than it did to read the runaway bestseller about the modern-day fallout from the possible coupling of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. The brand-new trailer looks great, and I have to admit that Tom Hanks actually comes across rather sexy (5/06).

Miami Vice: Colin Farrell plays Crockett and Jamie Foxx plays Tubbs in filmmaker Michael Mann's big-screen version of the classic '80s TV show. Its probable popularity does not mean, however, that you should get your pastel suits out of mothballs (7/06).

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Johnny Depp revisits his Oscar-nominated role as Captain Jack Sparrow in a possibly unnecessary but nonetheless welcome sequel to 2003's box-office juggernaut (7/06).

The Departed: Martin Scorsese anglicizes the exciting Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs using Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone to tell the tale of a Boston cop who infiltrates the Irish mob (8/06).

Casino Royale: Daniel Craig (Layer Cake) shoulders the mantle of James Bond, marking the first time Bond has been blond, as well as the first time I may actually want to see a Bond flick (11/06).

The Ringer (PG-13), directed by Barry W. Blaustein, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres and Henrietta 18.

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