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‘The Ringer’ is surprisingly funny

Farrelly brothers wrestle what could have been offensive into comedy
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just the idea behind “The Ringer” is enough to make you cringe.

Johnny Knoxville stars as an average guy who pretends he’s mentally challenged in order to rig the Special Olympics. Hunched over to one side and slightly contorted, referring to himself in the third person by the simpleton pseudonym “Jeffy,” he insinuates himself among the athletes who truly have physical and intellectual disabilities with the hopes of winning the thousands of dollars he owes.

It could have been painful to watch in its political incorrectness or, conversely, an insufferably feel-good life lesson.

It’s surprisingly funny — often laugh-out-loud hilarious — and yes, inspirational, without trying too hard. At least most of the time.

The names behind the movie help explain the balance “The Ringer” has managed to strike. Peter and Bobby Farrelly are two of the producers. Longtime “Family Guy” writer Ricky Blitt is responsible for the script. And Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, is the executive producer in a genius move that ensures the characters are depicted with respect and allows the film to avoid any misunderstandings or controversy.

(That spirit of cooperation seems to have extended to every last detail; Chris Burke, the actor with Down syndrome who starred as Corky on the TV series “Life Goes On,” attended a recent screening of the film in New York, where he was escorted to his prime aisle seat and given a rousing introduction.)

And it’s the scenes that showcase actors like Burke who live with developmental disabilities — actual Special Olympians, some making their film debuts — that buzz with the most unexpected comic energy. Director Barry W. Blaustein also uses regular actors playing mentally challenged men to zany effect. All of the characters get a chance to goof on themselves and each other in twisted but well-intentioned ways.

Needing $28,000 to pay for a friend’s finger-reattachment surgery — the story is so complicated it literally requires a flow chart to explain it at one point in the film — Knoxville’s Steve Barker goes to his loser Uncle Gary for help. (The cigar-chomping Brian Cox plays the role with blissfully un-PC elan.)

Having recently seen a story on television about Jimmy Washington (Leonard Flowers), a six-time gold medalist in the Special Olympics, Gary comes up with the idea to have Steve compete against him and beat him in order to reap the benefits of gambling on the games.

Flowers, a 16-year Special Olympics veteran, is totally believable as an arrogant track star who arrives in a limo with his entourage and wears custom-made, metallic-gold running shoes. One particularly brutish character describes him as “the Deion Sanders of retards.”

Steve is ethically reluctant but gives in, training himself by watching videos of “Rain Man,” “I Am Sam” and “The Best of Chevy Chase.” Once he fools everyone and makes it in as Jeffy, though, it doesn’t take long for his new friends to figure out he’s faking. The frequently wacky Knoxville finds himself playing straight man to Edward Barbanell, a Special Olympian and a scene-stealer as Steve’s know-it-all roommate, and actor Jed Rees as the overly affectionate and enthusiastic Glen.

But in a clever twist, these guys help him keep up his ruse because they’re so sick of seeing Jimmy win every year. They subject him to the obligatory training montage — clumsy hurdles at 3 a.m., jabs to the stomach, an elaborate squirt-gun fight — but even that’s funny because it has such a silly, gleeful vibe. It’s also an ideal fit for the high pain tolerance and physical comedy skills Knoxville acquired during his “Jackass” days.

Some moments feel stiff, even a bit preachy, especially toward the end. And a romantic subplot involving a Special Olympics volunteer who’s engaged to a duplicitous pretty-boy feels like little more than an excuse to include the pretty, blond Katherine Heigl.

But more often than not, you’ll find yourself laughing with “The Ringer,” not at it, right along with the characters themselves.