Pawns of the Premise
In Rat Race, the humor depends on degrees of outrageousness. In other words, we laugh because the obstacles that the characters face as they attempt to attain their goal are unbelievable, funny, or somewhere in between. It helps that director Jerry Zucker’s (Airplane!, Top Secret, Ghost) technical abilities augment the zaniness. Given that Andy Breckman’s screenplay is focused on a race in which six teams all vie for the same $2 million, character development is minimal. Rather, the film starts at point A and ends up at point B. And although this film isn’t a nonstop laugh riot, it is easily the funniest film of the summer.
Like Stanley Kramer’s 1963 film, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Rat Race features a well-known ensemble cast playing broadly drawn characters. Everyman Nick Schaffer (Breckin Meyer); much maligned football referee Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding, Jr.); the incompetently conniving Cody Brothers (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf); newly reunited mother and daughter tandem Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg) and Merrill Jennings (Lanei Chapman); the slightly dysfunctional Pear family (Lon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, Brode Smith and Jilliam Marie); and the Italian narcoleptic Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson) make up the underdeveloped characters, all less important than what happens to them. Pawns of the premise, they are, appropriately enough, first positioned in the epicenter of excess, Las Vegas.
As winners of special gold coins from slot machines, they are invited to a meeting, hosted by hotel president Donald Sinclair (John Cleese, wearing enormous false teeth). Informing them that they have been chosen to compete in the race, Sinclair brusquely tells them, “There are no rules,” and sends them on their way. They must travel 563 miles to a small New Mexican town and find a train station locker with the money inside. This race is only part of a high-stakes betting arrangement involving Sinclair and a clandestine group of billionaires. The set-up is revealed within the first fifteen minutes of the film, and it’s a good thing. Too much explaining bogs down films like this one. In cutting to the chase, literally, Rat Race allows the structural elements to hit full stride quickly.
As well, do not underestimate the importance of the opening credits. Here, cartoonish renditions of the main players—reminiscent of South Park with a touch of Monty Python‘s “cut-out” style animation—lay out how this entire film should be perceived: as a cartoon. The incidents that slow down the characters’ progress are arranged by Breckman and Zucker into six sub-plots. Each team (most of the players are accompanied by a friend or relative) has its own trials, and each cuts to some other storyline. There is a sequence in the film that epitomizes the absurdity of the plot and also displays how well Zucker constructs the order of the scenes. For example, Randy Pear and his family must frantically flee an Adolf Hitler museum after stealing the Nazi leader’s Mercedes Benz touring car. That scene is juxtaposed with an over-the-top revenge fantasy, enacted by helicopter pilot and Nick’s new love interest, Tracy (Amy Smart). While flying Nick to New Mexico, she happens upon her boyfriend (Dean Cain) and his ex, fooling around in his swimming pool. Her rage results in the demolition of her boyfriend’s truck and the grounding of her helicopter. And that scene leads to one where Owen attempts to steal a bus carrying a group of Lucille Ball look-a-likes. One scene is just as ridiculous as the next, and all of the absurdities share the same comedic energy.
The crowded backgrounds of these scenes bolster the main action and, most importantly, the jokes. During one embarrassing scene, the Pear family is arguing about whether or not to stop the car, so the daughter can go to the bathroom. It’s not as simple as peeing in a coffee can; she’s got to go “Number 2.” The set up shot is a medium shot of the entire family; from the back seat, the daughter says that she’s “prairie doggin’ it” (they explain what this means). Then in a close-up, she says, “I hate you!” over and over. Here she appears to be partially in the car and partially out of the window. A cut to an aerial shot shows her rear end hanging out of the window. Funny, yes, but this leads to the payoff long shot, which reveals that they have been pulled over by the highway patrol. While Mr. Pear tries to explain to an officer in the foreground of the frame, the joke appears in the background: a second officer is cleaning the windshield of the squad car with a rag.
Though this kind of scatological humor isn’t pervasive (not like the ponderous potty humor that ruined Austin Powers 2), Rat Race‘s humor isn’t exactly tasteful either. There are a few “cheap shot” jokes directed at gays, women bikers, and punk rockers. It’s unfortunate that these jabs are sprinkled through the rest of the funny business, because they do not make the film any better. At the same time, there are several laugh-out-loud moments, some visible from a mile away, but still effective. You need to bring low expectations to Rat Race. It’s full of pratfalls, sight gags, and irreverence toward I Love Lucy, Nazis, body piercing, a very unlucky cow, and a dog. Fortunately, Zucker executes them all like a ringmaster.