"Rat Race," a return to zany, comedic territory for director Jerry Zucker (1980's "Airplane!") after a decade-long bout with serious drama (1990's "Ghost," 1995's "First Knight"), is just the type of movie that never, or rarely, gets made today. Inspired by 1963's "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" and bearing certain similarities with 1980's "The Cannonball Run" and 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Rat Race" wastes no time with character-defining moments and rising sentimentality, because it makes no room for it. From the delirious opening credits sequence, in which the actors' heads are placed on cartoon bodies, to almost the very end, director Zucker and screenwriter Andrew Breckman pile on one sight gag or elaborate comic setpiece after the next, only to further punctuate how intentionally loony and unabashedly fun this movie is.
The setup is simple. At a Las Vegas casino, six people/groups are chosen at random by wealthy entrepreneur Donald Sinclair (John Cleese), and given a proposal that seems too good to be true. Seven-hundred miles away at a train station in Silver City, New Mexico lies a bundle filled with $2-million in cash. Located in locker #001, each group is given a single key that enables them to open it. The first one to successfully reach the locker gets the entirety of the cash, no strings attached. Sounds simple, but in true farcical fashion, every mishap that could ever possibly occur does.
The participants are young lawyer Nick Shaffer (Breckin Meyer), who hitches a ride from cute helicopter pilot Tracy Faucet (Amy Smart); Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg) and the now-grown daughter she has just been reunited with, Merrill Jennings (Lanei Chapman); just-fired NFL referee Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.); goofy, narcoleptic Italian Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson); dim-witted brothers Duane (Seth Green) and Blaine Cody (Vince Vieluf); and Home Depot employee Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz), with his chaotic wife (Kathy Najimy) and children (Brody Smith, Jillian Marie) in tow.
Written, directed, and acted by people who look to be genuinely enjoying themselves, "Rat Race" is, bar none, the funniest film of the summer. Inventive to the point of constant delight, the comedy comes so fast and furious that, at times, it is difficult to catch your breath from laughing so hard. And whenever you aren't in a state of hysteria, the sheer joyfulness of the whole enterprise leaves a smile plastered dumbly on your face.
The key to great visual comedy comes from setting up one uproarious joke, only to lead it to another that makes the situation all the more rib-tickling. Screenwriter Breckman, along with director Zucker, keenly understands this necessity and uses it to its best advantage. Because "Rat Race" relies on the surprises it has in store for the audience at all times, it would be a disservice to give any of it away. Suffice to say, a runaway heart, an unfortunate cow, a run-in with the psychotic Squirrel Lady (Kathy Bates), a bus for of "I Love Lucy" fan club members, and a museum of Adolf Hitler memorabilia, all figure in to the story.
There are no characters or performances that stand out from the pack because each one of the individual ensemble storylines is like a tour de force mini-comedy that has been strung together by a simple, yet effective, premise. Every main actor has about equal the screen time as everyone else, and each of them get ample chance to not only shine, but to show off their comedic skills. It is nice to see the underrated Whoopi Goldberg, however, get an opportunity to once again do what she does best after a string of wasted roles (2001's "Monkeybone," 2000's "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle").
If "Rat Race" is able to maintain its insanely high level of energy throughout, the conclusion could have admittedly been stronger. Going about ten minutes longer than it needed to, the way in which it deals with the winner(s) deciding what to do with the money is slightly disappointing, considering everything that had come before. An entertaining end-credits stage sequence recoups the film's brief lag with the cast performing the hit song, "All Star," with rock group Smash Mouth.
Movies like "Rat Race" come around once in a blue moon. Not reliant on solely bathroom humor, and with a roughly twice-per-minute laugh ratio, the film moves at a clip pace that makes every moment all the more delightful. While not deep, meaningful, or life-changing, "Rat Race" plays like a brilliantly hilarious 113-minute joke that you can't, no matter what, get out of your head.
©2001 by Dustin Putman