The Ringer

Posted on December 20, 2015 at 3:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and some drug references.
Profanity: Some crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in bar, character chews a cigar
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, serious injury played for humor
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2015
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2016

The single most interesting aspect of The Ringer, a movie about a man who pretends to be disabled so that he can compete in the Special Olympics, is that the movie was made in cooperation with and with the endorsement of the Special Olympics organization, and 150 Special Olympics athletes appear in the film.

Unfortunately, the story of how the movie got made is much more interesting than the formulaic story of the movie itself. Steve (Johnny Knoxville), a nice non-disabled guy who needs money to help someone get an operation pretends to be “high-functioning developmentally disabled” to compete in the Special Olympics. He assumes that as a former high school track athlete, he will have no trouble winning, so that his gambler uncle (Brian Cox) can win a huge bet, paying off his own gambling debts and getting the money for an operation. Of course Steve (1) learns that he is the one with the more serious disability, and (2) meets a very pretty volunteer at the Special Olympics (Katherine Heigl as Lynn). You know the rest.

The one thing that is not formula in this movie is its portrayal of the developmentally disabled athletes as loyal, dedicated, smarter than most people think, and very funny. While the non-disabled people in the movie are often clueless, inept, or corrupt, the Special Olympians are on to Steve almost immediately, and they don’t just out-smart him; they out-nice him, too. They become the first real friends he has ever had.

This aspect of the movie provides some fresh and funny moments, but too much of the film is taken up with sub-par “jokes” like Steve’s uncle registering him for the competition under the name of a notorious serial killer and a man having three of his fingers cut off in a lawnmower. The developmentally disabled cast members show considerable charm, especially Edward Barbanell as Steve’s roommate, Billy.   Barbanell contributed the movie’s funniest line and delivers it with exquisite comic timing. But a lackluster script and charm-free performances by Knoxville and Cox don’t do justice to the Special Olympians in the story or in the cast. Furthermore, despite its best intentions, the use of non-disabled actors to play disabled characters in many of the key roles gives the film an air of condescension that is never fully overcome. I’m glad the Special Olympians have been recognized in a mainstream Hollywood movie; I just wish it was the movie they deserved.

Parents should know that the movie has some crude language and crude humor, including getting hit in the crotch. Characters drink (scenes in a bar) and smoke (Steve’s uncle is constantly chewing on a cigar).
Families who see this movie should talk about friends and family members with disabilties and how to prevent prejudice against them.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy an old movie called Miss Tatlock’s Millions, in which a man pretends to be a long-lost heir who is developmentally disabled so that he can get the money. They will also enjoy Stuck on You (some mature material), directed by the Farrelly brothers, who produced this film. They cast disabled performers in all of their movies and the credit sequence in Stuck on You has a lovely speech by one of them about how much the experience meant to him. A scholarly article from Disability Studies Quarterly explores the portrayal of disabled people in the Farrellys’ movies.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Steve learned from his experience and why.

Families who want to learn more about how this movie was made can learn about what it takes to be a Special Olympian.   I recommend this report from the magazine of the Special Olympics organization and this statement from the heads of the organization about what they hoped the film would accomplish:

“Laughing at a person and laughing with a person are very different forms of humor, and it is our belief that this comedy will give audiences the chance to laugh with Special Olympics athletes while appreciating their joy and wisdom. Equally importantly, we believe that the stigmas presented in the early scenes of the movie will be seen as folly by the end of The Ringer. Many of us know all too well how hurtful insensitive words can be. Special Olympics hopes people seeing the movie will be inspired to reach out to people with intellectual disabilities and say, to quote Special Olympics athlete Troy Daniels, ‘Come sit by me’ – a simple gesture that reflects a world of acceptance and mutual respect.”

The Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, now serves more than 1.7 million developmentally disabled athletes in more than 200 programs in more than 150 countries.

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Being Evel

Posted on August 27, 2015 at 5:13 pm

Evel Knievel was an international celebrity in the 1960’s-70’s, known for three things: showmanship, stunts that succeeded, and stunts that failed. He was recognized for jumping over 19 cars in his motorcycle, for crash-landing after trying to jump over the fountains of Caesars Palace, and holding the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most broken bones. He was an iconic figure in his white leather jumpsuits trimmed with stars and stripes. Over the 37 years that ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” seven of the top ten rated episodes, including the most-watched of all time, featured Knievel.

He influenced and inspired a generation of daredevil kids, those who transformed his stunts into a whole new category of amateur and professional competition called extreme sports (“having a high level of inherent danger”). And he inspired a lot of idiotic behavior from people like Johnny Knoxville, who made a career out of doing stupid stuff on television and getting hurt, and who has now made a documentary about the man he says he thought of not as a daredevil but as a superhero. He was a star for what he dared to do but he was a bigger star for staying with it even when he failed. “Fast, faster, and disaster,” says Knoxville, but, as the film makes clear, “He captured my imagination like nobody else.”

Knoxville warns us up front that Knievel was not entirely admirable. And, as a friend comments in the film, his career followed the same arc as his famous “Skycycle” stunt, when he attempted to ride what was essentially a small rocket across a canyon. What went up, came down, eventually, in a spectacular crash.

This portrait, co-produced by George Hamilton, who played Evel in a 1971 film, is frank but sympathetic, with archival footage and interviews with Knievel’s friends, family, and fans.

Robert Craig Knievel was born in Butte, Montana in 1938, where he was raised by his grandparents. He was close to his first cousin, Pat Williams, elected to Congress nine times. In the 1940’s, Butte was a town of coal miners and prostitutes, where disputes were settled by fistfight and no one took a misdemeanor like petty theft personally. When a cop referred to him as “Evil” Knievel, Robert adopted the name, changing the i to an e, to make it “less evil.”

Knievel married a girl from Butte (she admits that he sort of kidnapped her, but she did not seem to mind) and they had three children. He sold insurance for a while, getting mental patients to sign up for policies to set a sales record and then he sold motorcycles. To promote the motorcycles, he started doing stunts. And then he kept doing stunts to promote himself. “How do you convince people to come to a sport they never heard of?” Evel knew how to tell a good story. We see him on talk shows, and later, after the Hamilton film, we see him spouting some of the dialogue written for his character. He didn’t like the film, but he knew a good line when he heard it. “He created the character and then tried to live the part,” says one of his friends.

He was a showman and a salesman. He had sponsors and licensing agreements. The Ideal action figure was one of the most popular toys of the era. He made a fortune and he spent it — planes, boats, jewelry. His enormous safe had a gold-plated motorcycle covered with cash.

This all happened during the 70’s. Knievel’s star-spangled stunts were a welcome distraction from the corruption and disappointment of the Watergate era. But Knievel was less successful at clearing his own distractions. All those injuries meant painkillers. That might have been a factor in his brutal attack on a former colleague, which ended in a guilty plea, a jail sentence, and the cancellation of lucrative endorsements and licensing deals. All those fans meant lots of girls. His wife left him. His health was shot; he had a liver transplant, a hip replacement, a spine fusion. His money was gone. Perhaps most difficult for him, his audience was gone.

Knoxville is an unabashed fan, but he is honest about Knievel’s failings. The movie has some unexpected revelations and telling details, but audiences are unlikely to agree that inspiring a generation of kids to risk their lives in crazy stunts is especially admirable. Knievel’s legacy, for better and worse, is more clearly tied to marketing and celebrity than to courage or integrity. The problem with making a reputation for stunts is that eventually, you crash and burn.

Parents should know that this movie includes a lot of preposterously risky behavior and injuries, references to sex, including sex with groupies and the effects of strong pharmaceuticals, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Who is most like Evel Knievel today? What was his most important influence?

If you like this, try: “Senna” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys”

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