by Jon Bastian
It’s a rat, rat, rat, rat world…
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The best description of Jerry Zucker’s race for the riches comedy Rat Race that I can think of is this — it’s like a really, really good roast beef sandwich with one of those fancy little fringie toothpicks up top, but the bread is stale. When the race gets rolling, everything is fine, but the beginning and the ending don’t live up to the middle.
I had high hopes when that fringie toothpick showed up — one of the best designed opening credit sequences in a long time, itself a throwback to those old animated credits of the sixties. The movie even has a catchy theme song, “Rat Race” performed by Baha Men, a number which deserves an Oscar nomination next year, if not a win. It sets us up perfectly, in giddy anticipation of things to come. Unfortunately, there’s just too much exposition next, too much of an attempt to set up characters that don’t really need it. The result is that the film immediately bogs down until the chosen ones are, well, chosen, and summoned to the meeting in which the film’s raison d’etre is announced. Eccentric billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese, Monty Python’s Flying Circus) tells them there’s two million dollars in cash in a train station locker in Silver City, New Mexico, a few hundred miles away. Each team is given a key to the locker, and the first one there gets to keep everything. What Sinclair doesn’t mention is that the whole race is itself just another thing to wager on for his very high rolling customers in the back room. The intended participants are dubious at first, but the lure of the money is just too much, and the race is on. This is where the film takes off. We just spend too much time taxiing down the runway.
Our contestants in the race are a very mixed bunch. At one end of the spectrum we have larcenous to the bone Duane Cody (Seth Green, America’s Sweethearts), who’s willing to let his brother Blaine (Vince Vieluf, Dropping Out) sustain any injury in order to pull off a lawsuit bonanza. (Green and Vieluf get my vote for this year’s cutest screen couple.) Slightly less larcenous is Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz, 3000 Miles to Graceland), who’s in Vegas with his wife, Bev (Kathy Najimy, The Wedding Planner) and the kids, a trip that’s a vacation for everyone but him. Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg, Monkeybone) has come to town to reunite with her long-lost daughter, Merrill Jennings (Lanai Chapman, White Men Can’t Jump), a woman who’s a little bit more high strung than her psychic-friends consulting mom. NFL Referee Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Pearl Harbor) just wants to be invisible after an extremely bad call on his part is nationally televised and then repeated ad nauseum. Attorney Nick Shaffer (Breckin Meyer, Josie and the Pussycats) is preparing either for sainthood or a career in politics, intent on doing absolutely nothing that could even hint at scandal later on. And finally, there’s Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean), a gawky foreigner who is too oblivious to even contemplate being evil. Along the way, they pick up a few hitchhikers and pass a few cameos en route to Silver City. Shaffer hooks up with convenient helicopter pilot Tracy Faucet (Amy Smart, Road Trip), a woman it is better not to scorn. Meanwhile, Pollini has a fortuitous run-in with transplant organ transport man Zack (Wayne Knight, TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun) who has trouble keeping the spare parts in the right place. Also watch for Kathy Bates and Dean Cain in minor roles.
Some of the set pieces in the film are hilarious and keep building on themselves, particularly a routine with an airport radar tower, or another one involving a hot air balloon, a driverless Cadillac and a pasture full of cows. Some of them careen way past the bounds of good taste — particularly the adventures that befall the Pear Family — but, for the most part, director Zucker keeps the more distasteful elements offscreen, leaving us to fill in the disquieting blanks. (One can only wonder if they’ll come back onscreen for the DVD release.)
Bits and pieces here are genuinely very funny, particularly a running gag in which Sinclair has his gamblers betting on stranger and stranger occurrences, often with no further explanation than the announcement of the winner. Also funny is Owen’s hijacking of a busload of Lucille Ball impersonators, on their way to a convention — and not only do they all look and sound like Lucy, they’re about as good at causing disaster, en masse. Kathy Bates has a cameo as a woman selling squirrels by the roadside, and her vengeance on non-purchasers is the stuff of urban legends. The biggest laugh of all, though, comes in a visit to a museum which wasn’t quite named for what we think it was. And this is one film where the director knew how to use music, choreographing sound and image together to heighten the comedic impact.
Comparisons with Stanley Kramer’s 1963 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World are inevitable, of course, although I’m not sure Rat Race fares badly here. Both are comedy road trip parables about greed with household name casts, and neither has much depth but a lot of breadth. But Kramer’s film in its original cut was an epic over three hours long; Zucker’s is well under two. And each film is a reflection of its times. Mad World gets started when a dying bank robber reveals the location of his buried loot to the only witnesses of the auto accident that kills him — everyone is driven by random events and their own greed. The cast of Rat Race, on the other hand, are just the pawns of a crazy billionaire, driven by manipulation… and their own greed. Of course, both films turn out very differently, too. I won’t give away Rat Race, but in Mad World, everyone had to pay for their behavior and no one got the loot. The ending of Rat Race was the other big problem for me — a little too convenient and “nice.” It’s as if the suffering our characters did on the road were enough, their many crimes minor and major swept under the rug at the fade out.
And that’s perhaps the biggest let-down in the film. For most of the middle section, while there are plenty of laughs, each team is pretty much on their own, dealing with whatever individual problems they encounter, not often meeting up again until they’re just outside of Silver City. One of the joys of Mad World was watching the competitors trying to screw with each other in an effort to win, or joyously driving by with a hearty laugh at a hapless and stranded fellow competitor. There are a few such moments in Rat Race, but there aren’t enough. The film may switch into high gear when the race starts, but it never feels like it’s accelerating, and in this kind of story, acceleration is everything.
So, for that reason, I can only recommend it if you want to see an innocuous comedy that doesn’t demand too much. It’s a perfect slow Sunday matinee flick, or a good DVD rental, but hardly a full price evening show. If only Mr. Zucker had run this race without one foot on the brake, it might have been a more exciting trip.
The soundtrack and the score, though, kick ass.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV hack living in his native LA with his American Eskimo/German Shepherd mix, Shadow the Wonderdog.
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