Rat Race Movie Review

After a generation on hiatus, the crazy, ensemble-cast chase comedy is back with an MTV vengeance in "Rat Race," a cornball marathon between a dozen second-tier stars vying for a $2 million booty.

The gimmick: To entertain his high-rolling clientele, a Las Vegas hotelier -- played by John Cleese with a slightly insane, toothy-dentured grin -- recruits an oddball assortment of zealous casino tourists to dash across the desert to New Mexico in search of a bus station locker where the loot has been stashed. The runners think it's all a zany promotion for Cleese's resort, but in the penthouse billionaires from all over the world are placing high-stakes bets on who will get there first, just for rich-guy kicks.

The players: Jon Lovitz is an chintzy, unemployed soccer dad who red-lines his minivan while dragging his family along, on the pretense of a job offer so he doesn't get chewed out for ruining their vacation. He catches hell anyway when the car breaks down outside a "white power" roadside attraction and they steal Hitler's limo to complete the pilgrimage.

Seth Green (Scott Evil in "Austin Powers") and Vince Vieluf ("Clay Pigeons") play dumb-and-dumber brothers who figure winning $2 million is just as good as their original plan to fake an accident at the hotel and sue for damages. Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman are a just-reunited mother and daughter who drive each other crazy getting lost on backroads shortcuts recommended by loopy local yokels.

Disgraced NFL referee Cuba Gooding, Jr. hijacks a tour bus full of Lucille Ball imitators -- who, of course, stay in character no matter what the circumstances. And straight arrow Breckin Meyer ("Josie and the Pussycats," "Go") who at first pooh-poohs participating in the insanity, thinks he's got it made when he meets a pretty helicopter pilot (Amy Smart) who happens to be going to New Mexico anyway.

Hijinks, slapstick and sabotage ensue, with very mixed results. Like the genre templates from which it's cloned -- 1981's "Cannonball Run" and 1963's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" -- "Rat Race" just indiscriminately throws every conceivable sight gag, road trip antic, fart joke, sex lark and motor vehicle monkeyshine at the screen without refinement, hoping some of it will stick. The hit-to-miss ratio is about one to five.

With a handful of downright hilarious moments, another dozen chuckles and about 60 dead-on-arrival comedic misfires, "Rat Race" is the kind of movie you try hard to enjoy but end up wishing it were a lot better.

When director and former screwball specialist Jerry Zucker ("Airplane!," "Top Secret!") spends a little time planning well-conceived set pieces, he often gets great grins. I turned blue from laughing at Green and Vieluf desperately clawing and climbing over each other, in slow-motion, to get out of their stalled car as a monster truck bore down on them after they accidentally drove into the middle of a daredevil show. I guarantee you'd guffaw at the running gag of side-bets made by the bored billionaires as they wait for the race to get exciting. (How long can a hotel maid hang from a curtain rod? Which of them will barf first when Cleese's private jet hits turbulence?)

But the balance of the contrived and mechanical comedy is flatly staged, under-scripted and obnoxiously over-improvised by actors who aren't really up to that sort of thing. Most obnoxious of all is British comic Rowan Atkinson, adding a little narcoleptic Italian to his stale "Mr. Bean" routine.

The escapades that do fly in "Rat Race" are so funny they're almost worth the price of a matinee admission. If it's a hot day and you're looking for air-conditioned entertainment, you could do worse. But the movie is too sloppy and inconsistent to recommend with any integrity. When it's obvious the actors are having more fun than the audience, something's definitely amiss.

Comments

Rat Race Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, August 17, 2001

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