Rat Race (2001)

D: Jerry Zucker
S: Rowan Atkinson, Breckin Meyer

Curiously unfunny throwback to those overblown 1960s star-fests working on the premise that if one comedian is good, then a dozen must be better. A group of people in a Las Vegas casino are co-opted into a cross-country race in pursuit of $2m. The race is set up by casino owner John Cleese, who has nefarious ends of his own, but in the way of these things, each of those who compete has their own motivation. Their personalities will to a certain extent determine their fates, but one thing is for sure, along the way there will be all manner of wacky adventures and mishaps, the best of which were featured in the trailer.

To be fair, this kind of thing was retro even in the 1960s, at least insofar as the scripts worked out for these overcast 'fun fests' were usually self-referential and recycled from dozens of classic slapstick comedies. Rat Race co-stars a small army of capable comic performers including Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Wayne Knight, and Kathy Najimy along with a brace of actors well able to play comedy including Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, and Vince Vieluf. Scriptwriter Andrew Breckman has attempted to find relatively new spins on old comic standards, but the result is a half-hearted Farrelly Brothers gross-out with a touch of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World's 'epic comedy' broadness. The plot shifts back and forth between characters only long enough to play the next gag, mixing silliness with tastelessness without ever really committing to either. The result is understandably unfocused, picaresque, and scattershot, but what sinks the film is the fact that very little has been done well.

Director Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) is a long way from his best here. The pace of the individual scenes is reasonable enough, but they have been stitched together with less of an eye for comic rhythm and timing than was needed. The widescreen compositions are also unsuitable. There are uncomfortable amounts of useless space between the actors and the environment. The action itself is actually relatively confined, so in spite of the expansive landscapes upon which the scenes are staged, the 'antics' amount to little more than reaction shots to events which are in themselves unexciting at best. The film therefore leaves you with a sense that you've missed something, or that something funny really should be going on up there, maybe in the background or something (as it used to in the Zuckers' trademark films).

So what of the individual gags then? Well, something is again amiss here. You can see where Breckman was hoping his running gags about Lovtiz and Najimy's Jewish family would go, but there is something deadening about the constant put-downs of the Nazis which supposedly reaches its comic high point when the unfortunate family end up driving Hitler's car (don't ask). This is not the outrageous black humour of The Producers, it is merely a comedic precept which has not been fully worked through: a sketch idea which needed workshopping before going to air. The same applies to much of the rest of it. Take the fact that Gooding winds up driving a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators. Okay... now how many laughs can you wring out of that? One, maybe two. Try sustaining the scene for ten minutes. How many crying Lucy's does it take to make you laugh? Or then there's the running gag about Vieluf's piercings. How funny can a tongue stud be? Perhaps we might consider Atkinson's character; Italian for no very good reason other than perhaps the fact that Roberto Benigni was unavailable. This actor has always specialised in comic facial expressions, and he does it here again. Unfortunately there's nothing else for him to do other than pull faces and so he becomes tiresome within about three minutes of his first appearance. Or maybe there's the mysterious appearence of Kathy Bates. This is the movie's best scene, but it has been stretched awkwardly between other scenes which are less interesting, and the pay off is a single (good) gag with no consequent effect on the narative.

It goes on like this; presenting half-baked ideas in the service of a plot which exists only to provide them with a platform. Meanwhile this massive cast of well-known faces make you think only of other films they have been good in. None of them have actual characters to play. They are merely one-dimensional cyphers in a one-joke situation requiring much comic bluster with no heart and no depth to any of it. What 'character development' there is is limited to a romantic sub-plot with Meyer and Smart (which also involves a pointless cameo by Dean Cain). The film on the whole is an empty vessel which makes a lot of noise, and then has the gall to end with a message about goodwill and brotherhood which we are supposed to take seriously.

Comedy is a notoriously slippery genre. There are some who may find the bits funny and enjoy the movie on the whole. Standing back from it with the benefit (or curse) of not having been drawn into it, it is easy to judge its failure as craft. Craft rarely matters to casual cinemagoers in this genre though, and in the end your reaction to it may depend on just how willing to laugh you happen to be when you see it. I can not in all conscience recommend it however, as it seems to me that there just isn't enough encouragement to laugh here, even if the spirit is willing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.