Directed by Barry W Blaustien, starring Johnny Knoxville, Brian Cox, Geoffrey Arend, Edward Barbanell, Bill Chott and Katherine Heigl.

The Farrelly brothers have made careers out of doing what no one else dared, rugby-tackling society's taboos, and saddling-up its sacred cows. On the face of it, 'The Ringer' - produced by the duo - seems to be in the same vein. But, after a shaky start, the film displays a message of inclusion and acceptance that would fit right in on 'Sesame Street', if it weren't for the swearing and profanity.

Johnny Knoxville plays Steve Barker, one of life's losers who, having caused a friend to lose his fingers in a lawnmower accident, allows his uncle Gary (Cox) to convince him to enter the Special Olympics and win, so that they can reap the pay-off from a $100,000 bet.

Fans of 'South Park' will already be gasping in alarm, noticing what appears to be rampant plagiarism. In an episode entitled 'Up the Down Steroid', Eric Cartman pretends to be intellectually challenged in order to enter the Special Olympics. It seems, however, that the two stories developed independently since, though 'The Ringer' was written and filmed months before the episode of 'South Park' was aired, the premise of 'The Ringer' did not become public knowledge until after the broadcast of the episode. 

Even so, the similarities are striking. Particularly since both 'The Ringer' and 'Up the Down Steroid' have scenes in which the main character practises his impersonation of a Special Olympian. And both share the same moral: that is, never assume that people with learning or physical impairments are inferior to anyone else. 'South Park', perhaps because it both a long-running show and in animated format, found it easier to convey the message. Moreover, it already boasts two special needs characters, Jimmy and Timmy, who are treated the same as the show's other characters (that is, they are no more the butt of the humour than the fat characters, the black characters, the white characters, the Jewish characters or the gay characters). While the message in 'South Park' is that everyone is messed up, the message in 'The Ringer' is that only those who think they're normal are messed up.

The film, which was made with the support and assistance of the Special Olympics organisation, has some very funny moments, without doubt, but the comedy seems to be stretched a little thin at times. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the choice of writer and director. Writer Ricky Blitt previously worked on a few episodes of 'Family Guy' and some less-than-successful TV shows, while director Barry Blaustein is responsible for both 'Nutty Professor' films and a documentary about the World Wrestling Federation entitled, 'Beyond the Mat'.

A lack of sensitivity and maturity, therefore, is to be expected. Which brings us to the next point; the number of attempted laughs using the word 'retarded' in a film about people with special needs. Though the Farrellys are notorious for pushing back the boundaries of what is acceptable, this film could have done with a smattering of sensitivity and there seems to be too great an attempt to include the word in the script, often failing to consider context and the sensibilities of the audience. Perhaps all involved were trying to convince the audience that they had not made a Disney-type message film. But be under no illusions; they have.

'The Ringer' is hokey, predictable, manipulative, and thoroughly enjoyable for it. As Walt Disney will no doubt have known, a successful tear-jerker sometimes has to twist a few arms.

Barry J Whyte