There's a moment of unexpected pith near the beginning of "Ringmaster," the big-screen vehicle for TV trashmonger Jerry Springer. Trailer-park queen Connie Zorzak (Molly Hagan) and her trampy daughter, Angel (Jamie Pressly) have become entwined in an unspoken love triangle with Angel's nonbiological father, Rusty (Michael Dudikoff). When a television announcement fills their mobile home with the news that "The Jerry Show" is looking for just such a dysfunctional family for its next episode, the three exchange nervous glances that hilariously blur the line between guilt and excited anticipation. In one brief second, they've already made the point the rest of the film merely hints at: Our culture of commerce has so totally replaced emotion with opportunism that the down time between experiencing pain and capitalizing on it is now nil.
Less a "Private Parts"-style biopic than might have been expected, "Ringmaster" thankfully relegates smut guru Springer to a marginal, supporting role. Instead, most of its screen time is devoted to the cast of multiracial combatants who elect to air their dirty laundry on the set of his vilified ratings juggernaut. It's a smart move for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that Springer can't act his way out of a paper bag, even when he's playing himself -- or something like himself. His character has inexplicably been rechristened "Jerry Farrelly," but no one's going to mistake the parade of topless lesbians and hair-pulling homegirls as an attempt to replicate "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
The second is that Connie's story is actually a lot more believable than it has any right to be. Most of the credit goes to Hagan, who doesn't let the knowledge that she's starring in a movie doomed to instant dismissal deter her from essaying the best performance she can muster. Instead, she's utterly convincing as a woman whose only chance at spiritual redemption is turning her family heartbreak into 15 minutes of a small-screen fame. When Connie reaches the Los Angeles studio where "Jerry" is taped, and immediately finds herself once again competing with her daughter for male attention, Hagan's carefully-played vulnerability makes us understand that her character is petrified not of being too old to hold on to her man, but to any man.
Such stabs at empathy, however, are only 50 percent of the "Ringmaster" circus. The rest is a revisiting of the lurid, leering shenanigans we've come to associate with the Springer brand name, including countless scenes of forbidden lovemaking and profanity-laden catfights. That pandering wouldn't be so objectionable if the film wasn't simultaneously intent on being rewarded for its insight. Just as Angel is about to complete the transition from a slutty caricature to a flesh-and-blood young woman, she and her mother become embroiled in an onscreen melee ... and the camera makes sure to follow the "action" by going straight up her skirt.
Taking advantage is the Springer way, but you'd never know it from "Farrelly's" climactic speech, in which he righteously declares that he's doing the common people a favor by giving their tales of woe a national audience. We hear about the drug addictions and adulteries of the rich and famous every day, he reasons; why do we only protest when "poor people" get their chance? The realization that Springer can't differentiate between emancipation and exploitation says a lot about his success in these confused times and about the ultimate failure of this hopelessly mixed-up film.