1998, R, 90 min. Directed by Neil Abramson. Starring Jerry Springer, Jaime Pressly, William McNamara, Molly Hagan, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Michael Jai White, Michael Dudikoff, Tangie Ambrose, Nicki Micheaux, Rebecca Broussard, Maximilliana.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 27, 1998

Ringmaster Jerry Springer is the kind of guy who gives even the circus a bad name. With the popularity of his syndicated TV talk show and best-selling videotapes, this self-invented star has decided to go for the mantle of “king of all media” and branch out into autobiography-writing and filmmaking, just this month releasing both a book and a movie with the same title: Ringmaster. The movie purports to offer a backstage glimpse at life behind the scenes of a controversial trash-talk show. But this is hardly a Madonna-like Truth or Dare backstage enterprise. Springer's film takes a fictionalized approach to the whole operation (if that's not an oxymoron), using professional (though vastly undistinguished) actors to play the real-life guests on the show, and himself appearing in only a small fraction of the film as a benign host named Jerry Farrelly. This move to the big screen puts the focus on two subsets of guests: one, the white trailer-trash foursome who come to L.A. to appear in the “You Did What With Your Stepdaddy?” segment; and the other, the black ghetto gals and their man who can't keep his pants zipped who come for the segment devoted to “My Traitor Girlfriends.” Ringmaster envisions a world in which the masses have abandoned their unfulfilled fantasies of becoming movie stars and instead dream of becoming guests on Jerry's show. And it's a show that believes in “the masses.” Springer's ludicrous onscreen speeches justifying why he does what he does would have us see him as some kind of cathode-ray Mother Teresa giving sustenance to the American poor and disenfranchised. He makes a point of defending himself against the effete journalists who charge that he panders to lowest common denominators, exploits the real troubles of his core constituency, and gets rich by never underestimating the public's bad taste. Aesthetics and morality aside, Ringmaster is a badly made movie. The performances are sub-par, the bare-bones script (by Jon Bernstein) is painfully shrill and witless, scenes don't cut together properly, there's very little story to speak of, and certainly no behind-the-scenes insights. Director Neil Abramson, who previously made his small mark in the filmmaking world with the moody Sundance favorite, Without Air, has – perhaps understandably – made a 180-degree turn here into the land of anti-aesthetics. Distribution company Artisan Entertainment, which also promotes such acclaimed festival fare as Pi and The Cruise, is surely hoping to make a killing here. But it remains to be seen if Springer's core audience will fork over the box-office bucks to see what they can see at home on the TV for free – especially since the movie offers less blood and mayhem than the home version. It's like watching the WWF and knowing for sure that it's all rigged.

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