Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Ringer. (2005). Fox Searchlight Pictures. Direced by Barry W. Blaustein. Produced by Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas, Bobby Farrelly, and John L. Jacobs. Screenplay by Ricky Blitt. Executive Producer Tim Shriver.

Reviewed by James L. Cherney, Miami University of Ohio

Much of what I considered writing about The Ringer has been rendered unimportant by the generally poor quality of the film.

The story is rather predictable, it substitutes prominent caricatures for main characters, and many of the jokes have been done so often that all but the younger generation will find them tired. Thus, whatever direction its sins and merits steer, the failing mechanics of the vehicle delivering them limits the distance audiences will be moved.

And that worries me. I worry in fear that that the film's weak box office performance will be blamed on its attempt to move outside of ableist traditions instead of on the film's poor execution. The film should be praised for the former and criticized for the latter, but the combination of both qualities in a single film seems to encourage some audiences to see these qualities as inherently connected.

The Ringer combines a variety of elements that audiences expect to create a monument to bad taste. Leading man Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame) plays Steve Barker, a man with money problems who tries to scam his way out of his situation by faking a mental disability to participate in and fix the Special Olympics. Add to this already potent premise the reputation of producers Bobby and Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal) and the edgy writing of Ricky Blitt (Family Guy), and you have a strong recipe for anticipation of abelist excess. Expecting such a result, many reviewers of this film express disappointment in the "safe," "sweet," and "touching" dish served instead, bemoaning that the film abandoned its chance at real humor in favor of a "softer" comedy. As Robert Koehler (2005) wrote in Variety, "Sometimes veering close to being a promotional film for the Special Olympics, [The Ringer] will be applauded by the disability community and its advocates but quickly ignored by longtime fans of the Farrellys and Knoxville for a subdued [box office] run."

The implication, which those interested in disability studies should find disturbing, is that The Ringer fails because it violates such time tested conventions of ableist cinema as making the disabled body the butt of jokes, having ablebodied persons play disabled characters, and relying on stereotypes of disability. While the film does employ each of these techniques to some extent, it does so as a lure to hook the audience into its critique of these and similar devices. Some of the jokes are conventional ableist material, but many revolve around Barker's ablebodied characteristics, and he ultimately rejects laughter at the expense of "outsiders." Likewise, ablebodied Barker performs as the disabled "Jeffy," but most of the disabled characters are played by actors who have the disabilities they display. Finally, Barker relies on displaying stereotypical behaviors in his unsuccessful performance, but learns from his experience how wrong (and unconvincing) many ableist stereotypes are. In short, the film ultimately passes up several opportunities to tickle ableist funny bones, preferring instead to prod ableist assumptions.

There are many reasons to set aside The Ringer, but that it does not lower itself to pandering to ableist expectations should not be one of them. Murderball it is not, but The Ringer—like Stuck on You, the Farrelly brothers' 2003 comedy about the life of a pair of conjoined twins—does question ableist thinking in its own way.


Koehler, R. (2005, December 21). "The Ringer." Variety.com. Retrieved January 23, 2006, from http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117929156.

Copyright (c) 2006 James L. Cherney

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