Finally, a movie for everyone who found the Cannonball Run films to be a tad too cerebral. In the tradition of those Burt Reynolds road epics and Stanley Kramer’s gargantuan anti-comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World comes Rat Race, the cheerfully moronic new farce from gagmeister Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, Ruthless People).
Reviving the tried-and-true formula for a whole new crop of 11-year-olds, Zucker has assembled a month’s worth of Hollywood Squares castoffs, including Rowan Atkinson, Jon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, John Cleese, Breckin Meyer, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dave Thomas, Seth Green, Kathy Bates, Paul Rodriguez and center square Whoopi Goldberg for the block. (What, did Jamie Farr lose his sheik outfit?) The group has been assembled by Las Vegas tycoon Donald Sinclair (Cleese, sporting a distracting set of fake choppers), who has selected them at random by means of a handful of gold coins planted in his casino’s slot machines (shades of Willy Wonka). Sinclair and his fellow billionaire gambling buddies have a new wager in mind: they’ve placed a red duffel bag containing two million dollars in cash inside a locker at a train station in Silver Springs, New Mexico. The chosen ones are each given a key to the locker and set loose. Whoever reaches the locker first gets the cash.
It sounds like the premise for a new FOX reality series, and by the time you finish reading this paragraph, it probably will be. In any case, the Vegas airport is quickly knocked out of commission and our motley crew of contestants are forced to find alternate means of transportation. Owen Templeton (Gooding, Jr.), a football referee who blew the opening coin toss of a hotly contested match-up, flags down a cab driver who lost a bundle on the game. Enrico Pollini (Atkinson), a narcoleptic with an ostensibly comical accent, teams up with an ambulance driver (Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight) rushing a human heart to El Paso for a transplant. Nick Shaffer (Meyer) enlists a cute helicopter pilot (Amy Smart) in hopes of beating the road-bound competition. Other vehicles called into service in pursuit of the jackpot include a hot air balloon, a bus loaded with Lucille Ball impersonators and Hitler’s private jeep.
Andrew Breckerman’s script is relentless in its pursuit of laughs – there’s no situation too contrived, no slapstick too juvenile for Rat Race. It’s got the kind of comic set pieces that feel reverse engineered, as if Breckerman began with the payoff (say, Jon Lovitz sporting a brush mustache and spouting mock-German in front of an audience of World War II vets), then sweated his way back through the improbable chain of events that leads up to it. With his brother David and their partner Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker revitalized this type of rapid-fire tomfoolery in the 1980’s with Airplane!, Top Secret! and the first Naked Gun. Those movies blended deadpan acting with MAD magazine-style parody and a shameless affinity for bad puns and off-the-wall sight gags. But Rat Race is closer in spirit to the later Naked Gun entries. It’s innocuous enough, and the sheer volume of monkeyshines assures a handful of genuine belly laughs, but the misfires far outnumber the direct hits to the funny bone.