Originally filmed in 2003, this Farrelly Brothers-produced comedy has sat on the shelf for over two years, probably because the studio was concerned that its subject matter (an ordinary guy pretends to be mentally disabled so he can compete in the Special Olympics) might inspire controversy. They needn't have worried. The Ringer is easily the warmest and fuzziest movie about fixing the Special Olympics that Hollywood is ever likely to make. The filmmakers even went so far as to have the Special Olympics board sign off on the screenplay and officially endorse the movie in the press. Their sensitivity is admirable, as is the film's warmhearted depiction of the athletes, many of whom are played by disabled actors. These characters are first and foremost treated as real people who are far more self-reliant and well-adjusted than the film's ostensible hero, a self-esteem-challenged loser named Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville).

As the film opens, Steve is in need of a quick cash infusion (to the tune of $28,000) to help a friend out of a serious medical emergency that's partly his fault. He turns to his no-good Uncle Gary (Brian Cox), who comes up with the "brilliant" idea of infiltrating the Special Olympics. After all, not only was Steve a track star in high school, but he's also an aspiring actor, which means he'll be able to fool the officials. While they don't notice anything amiss about the sweet new kid who calls himself Jeffy, Steve's teammates see through his act almost immediately. Rather than turn him in, though, they decide he'll be useful in bringing down their nemesis Jimmy (Leonard Flowers), the egotistical reigning champ of the Special Olympics. So Steve/Jeffy reluctantly throws himself into training...that is, when he's not making eyes at Lynn (Katherine Heigl), a pretty volunteer who thinks of him as a brother.

Although the advertisements for The Ringer play up the Farrellys' trademark bad taste, it's hard to imagine anyone getting offended by the finished product. A few off-color gags aside, there's nothing here that approaches the infamous sperm-as-hair-gel sequence in There's Something About Mary or even the fat jokes in Shallow Hal. The film is relentlessly agreeable, encouraging the audience to laugh along with the characters rather than at them. Kudos to the Farrellys, director Barry W. Blaustein and writer Ricky Blitt for treating these athletes with the respect they deserve, but the movie's sensitivity turns out to be its undoing. Forced to rein in the traditional Farrelly approach to comedy, the filmmakers struggle to exploit the premise in ways that are both amusing and inoffensive. The result is a good-natured comedy that isn't particularly interesting or, for that matter, very funny. The Ringer is further weighed down by a leaden performance from Knoxville, who comes across like a third-rate Ben Stiller. At least his resoundingly unfunny turn allows the audience to focus on the movie's real stars: the men and women of the Special Olympics.

-Ethan Alter