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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Ringer' plays it safe, but not funny

Do you care that Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Society endorse ''The Ringer"? Does it matter whether there's offensive material in this latest lowbrow comedy produced by the same irreverent Farrelly brothers who gave the world ''Stuck on You," ''Shallow Hal," and ''Dumb and Dumber"? Or do you really just want to know if it's funny?

Come on. You want to know if it's funny. And the answer is: kind of.

Directed by Barry W. Blaustein (''Beyond the Mat"), an ex-''Saturday Night Live" writer best known for his screenplay contributions to Eddie Murphy projects, ''The Ringer" stars Johnny Knoxville as an unchallenged pencil pusher who attempts to infiltrate a Special Olympics competition for personal gain. We'll get to the ridiculous premise for this despicable action in a minute, but the plot is less important than how fearlessly and humorously it plays out, and if you're expecting ''Jackass," you're aiming too high.

Blaustein, working from a script by sitcom-schooled Ricky Blitt (''Family Guy"), prefers to deliver a gentle film that serves up standard, mildly funny jokes and steers clear of anything truly outrageous. He gives the stereotypes a brief bit of floor time before proving them all wrong and routinely has Knoxville surrender the punch line to actors playing his inspirational competitors. But if the laughs don't often come at anyone's expense, they also don't come often enough. Way too much of ''The Ringer" is derivative filler that just sort of jogs along to the medals competition, which (getting back to the narrative setup) can't come soon enough.

When we meet him, Steve (Knoxville) is a meek cubicle rat and professional nice guy. Forced to fire a klutzy janitor, he offers the laborer a job doing his yard work, then shoulders the burden for costly surgery when the new hired hand gets chomped by a lawnmower. Meanwhile, Steve's Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) has a gambling problem that leads him to hatch a plan: If Steve, a track star and actor in his high school days, can play a ''highly functioning, developmentally disabled" athlete well enough to beat the pompous reigning Special Olympics champion, they'll cash in on a bet big enough to cover all debts.

So, hiking up his gym shorts and calling himself ''Jeffy Dahmor," Steve enters the competition, which he quickly learns is no joke. His fellow athletes (including several real-life Special Olympians) have his number from the start, and it isn't long before they're in on the charade, helping him train because they want to see the defending champ fall. Their efforts are sweet, but the only thing less believable than Steve/Jeffy sailing through this televised contest without being outed is his drippy relationship with a perky volunteer played by Katherine Heigl from TV's ''Grey's Anatomy."

''The Ringer" is big on inspirational messages -- try your best, dare to dream, keep on going even when water balloons are being thrown at your crotch -- and it's also committed to depicting the mentally challenged as individuals with a real range of personalities. But in striving to be fair beyond reproach, this movie misses many chances to be funnier. Good comedy doesn't make that choice, and great comedy doesn't have to.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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