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THE RINGER In need of quick cash, a struggling office worker named Steve (Johnny Knoxville) is persuaded by his sleazy uncle (Brian Cox) to pretend to be a mentally challenged athlete named Jeffy so he can enter the Special Olympics and come away the big winner. The movie may sound outrageous and offensive, but truthfully, navel-scratching slobs won't enjoy this any more than navel-gazing snobs once they catch a whiff of its overwhelming timidity. Because the filmmakers respect the plight of the mentally handicapped (indeed, the movie's executive producer is Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics), they go out of their way to avoid anything that might be construed as demeaning. This in turn means that, except for a smattering of scenes with Cox's character (who openly calls the athletes "'tards"), the film's only outlet for any risky business is Knoxville, and he falls in line by offering up a performance-within-a-performance (i.e. a regular guy pretending to be handicapped) that's so meek, it's often hard to differentiate between when he's playing Steve and when he's playing Jeffy. In the end, all that's left is a familiar tale about a guy who attempts to get close to a woman he likes (in this case, Katherine Heigl's perky volunteer) by pretending to be something he's not -- see City Lights, Tootsie, Hitch, and about 1,000 other titles that mine this formula better than The Ringer. Incidentally, two of the more ribald scenes from the trailer are not in the movie, meaning that there's probably an unrated cut waiting to make its DVD debut four months hence. Rating: * 1/2

Current Releases

AEON FLUX While director Karyn Kusama may deserve a lavish Hollywood mansion and three-picture deal as much as the next filmmaker, she's one person whose career might have benefited more had she stayed hungry. Her low-budget debut feature, 2000's Girlfight, was an indie knockout, signaling her arrival as a moviemaker with grit, determination and something to say. Five years later, Kusama's back with her sophomore effort, and it's dispiriting to see that it's a big-budget production deemed so awful by its own studio that it wasn't even screened in advance for critics. Based on an animated MTV series, this futuristic romp stars Charlize Theron as the title warrior, one member of a revolutionary outfit seeking to overthrow a corrupt government. An impersonal slab of sci-fi sameness, Aeon Flux wears its lethargy like a badge of honor, with Kusama's draggy direction and Theron's monotonous performance up front and center in virtually every scene. Rating: * 1/2

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this epic yarn. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven Narnia adventures -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy tale that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color, and the brisk storyline fuels the imagination. Rating: ***

THE FAMILY STONE Initially more reminiscent of the brittle Thanksgiving yarns Home For the Holidays and Pieces of April than the warm-and-fuzzy titles usually foisted upon us at Christmas, this ensemble piece centers on a liberal New England clan whose members prove to be close-minded when it comes to accepting a conservative prude into their abode. Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family, but for the most part they treat their guest poorly, finding it impossible to warm up to her views. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha does a nice job of capturing the way that dissimilar people must try to coexist peacefully at familial gatherings. But refusing to follow through on the messy reality of his story, he shamelessly changes direction by offering every character (except the one designated as sacrificial lamb, of course) a happily-ever-after fadeout by making sure no one is left out in the cold -- either physically, mentally or emotionally. Rating: ** 1/2

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE It wouldn't take much for Fun With Dick and Jane to emerge as a superior remake, given that the 1977 original looks especially dismal these days. That laughless comedy employs two actors of marginal comedic abilities -- Jane Fonda and George Segal -- in a lumbering yarn about a well-to-do married couple who turn to crime once the husband loses his job. This new version one-ups its predecessor right out of the starting gate by casting two bona fide comedians -- Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni -- in the central roles. This is strictly a congenial, end-of-year trifle aimed at providing families with somewhere to go after all the presents have been opened. It's a pleasant enough diversion, offering a few chuckles, allowing Carrey to occasionally mug, and keeping the paying customers satisfied. HH1/2

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