One of the promotional ploys for Rat Race is the repeated announcement that it stars two Oscar winners. Two. Both, it so happens, are Supporting Actor winners, and both are black (this makes them exactly two thirds of the living black Oscar-winners on the planet): Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Now, in some other context, this would be a happy occasion. It’s often very good to see skilled performers stretch and challenge one another in worthy material. Sadly, Jerry Zucker’s Madcap-with-a-capital-M Comedy, Rat Race, is not that context. It is, instead, the precise opposite. It is drecky, dull-headed comedy, all pratfalls and wild hair and poop jokes. And that is a sorry place for two Oscar winners to come together. Then again, I don’t imagine anyone much figured on Marissa Tomei or Robert De Niro’s post-prize career choices, either.
Rat Race is more or less what it sounds like, a movie about rats racing. Six teams of life’s losers compete for a prize of $2 million. The competition is set up by zillionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese in lunatic false teeth—I suppose that such make-up props go a long way toward “characterization” in brutal outings like this one). He offers the prize so he and his wealthy pals can place bets on which idiot will come in first, monitoring events as they happen. Gee, they’re just like those tv viewers who tune in to the Survivors again and again, and who will maybe watch this fall’s Amazing Race, which appears to have the film’s set-up, wherein contestants race for money. And gee, do you think the film is making a comment on the current media obsession with people who have too much time on their hands anticipating and investing in other people’s desperate behaviors?
Be that as it may, here, the rat-racers start in Las Vegas and head to a little town in New Mexico, where Sinclair has stashed a bag o’ cash in a train station locker. Wouldn’t you know it, a minor catastrophe at the airport’s control tower makes it impossible for planes to depart. And so, the players must find their way to New Mexico by hook or by crook. And because every review of this movie must include the thumbnail lowdown, the list follows: straightest-of-the-bunch-man Nick (Breckin Meyer) gets a ride with chopper pilot Tracy (Amy Smart); Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz) and his family (wife Beverly [Kathy Najimy] and two miserable kids [Brode Smith and Jillian Marie]) steal Hitler’s touring car from a Nazi museum out in the middle of nowhere; Vera (Goldberg) and her newly re- discovered daughter, Merrill (Lanei Chapman), whom she long ago gave up for adoption, drive their car off a cliff (don’t ask) and then hitch a ride in a faster-than-the-speed-of-sound experimental drag racer, in a ride so violently tooth-shaking that it renders them unable to speak or think for a few hours (really, don’t ask); Owen (Gooding), actually a football ref, pretends to be the legal driver for a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators; brothers Duane (Seth Green) and Blaine (Vince Vieluf) end up somewhere between a monster truck and a hot air balloon with a cow tied to it; and the Italian Mr. Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), whose primary character trait appears to be that he is narcoleptic, and so, falls asleep in various situations. He ends up traveling with an ambulance driver, Zack (Wayne Knight, better known as “Newman!”), who’s transporting a heart for a transplant. I’ll just say this: that heart is abused mightily. And, although I would call Atkinson an acquired taste, one that I haven’t exactly acquired, he gives what is probably the funniest and—I can’t believe I’m saying this—the subtlest of the self-loving performances in this film.
As even this brief list of character-types and events indicates, Rat Race is not a film per se, but rather, a series of sight gags, the more outrageous and nonsensical, the better. The gags are broad and the attitude condescending, toward both the hapless racers and the snooty bettors. Screenwriter Andy Breckman and director Zucker (who also revised the script some, on the set, as he always does) have concocted the perfect late-season getaway flick, impeccably timed to drop into theaters at exactly the moment when you’re primed to throw squishy vegetables at the screen should you see just one more self-righteous, over-hyped, too-expensive, product-tied-in, obnoxiously calculated, non-blockbuster disaster of a movie. You’re so grateful to see a movie that is as selfless and giddy and irreverent as this one, that you’ll forgive it all its many sins, namely, its many bodily functions jokes, lazy stereotypes, and dysfunctional family punch lines.
Still, the film’s lousy attitude toward its characters, and toward presumptuous Hollywood fare and fare-makers, comes free. This attitude has something to do with you, dear reader. And I’m not even saying that a balls-out stupid summer comedy where no one cares about special effects or plots making sense or even about characters winning or losing is a bad thing. It is, rather, a representative thing. The movie represents a certain disrespect for audiences and the movies they pay to watch.
While Rat Race is comparable to previous outright goofy movies—including the chase movie model, like It’s a Mad Mad Mad World (1963) or, more recently, Zucker’s own writing (and producing) credits, Airplane!, Kentucky Fried Movie, and the Naked Guns—it’s also a sadder, more cynical version of those movies, and far less surprising. First off, it lacks Leslie Nielsen. But second, its insights into the crude culture it’s skewering are less powerful and so, less funny. How hilarious—or original—is it to make fun of monster truck rallies? Nazi museum visitors? Lesbians on motorcycles? Men and women who dress up like Lucille Ball? Farm-Aid-like rock concerts? These are painfully easy targets. The folks involved in these groups band together for the very reason that others routinely make fun of them. And Rat Race does it again.