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When 'Race' gets rolling, laughs do too

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[Photos: Paramount Pictures]
Rat Race stars, from left, Jon Lovitz, Seth Green, Amy Smart, Vince Vieluf, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Breckin Meyer and Lanei Chapman.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 16, 2001


After a slow beginning, Rat Race turns the corner into hilarity, with a cast that is more than up to speed.

Boy, was I wrong about Rat Race.

Reviewers aren't supposed to bring preconceived notions into a theater, but doing a modern version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World sounded disastrous. A silly preview trailer didn't help.

Turns out that Rat Race is more of a reinvention, to borrow Tim Burton's ape alibi. Greed and speed are still of the essence, along with a relentlessly madcap pace set by director Jerry Zucker. The all-star cameo conceit of Stanley Kramer's 1963 classic is scaled back drastically but still works. Rat Race has little in common with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World except what matters: lots of laughs.

Zucker needs a reel to find his momentum; clumsy introductions and telegraphed jokes aren't promising ways to make friends with moviegoers. Even when Rat Race gets rolling, some scenes are simply too stupid to consider artful. Just hang around until John Cleese appears, then hang on.

The premise is a dandy. Cleese plays an eccentric Las Vegas hotelier staging high-roller wagers on stupid bets such as which maid can hang from curtain rods the longest. His new game involves picking eight random gamblers for a race to Silver City, N.M. The first contestant to open a certain train station locker gets the $2-million inside.

The contestants are dunces. Owen (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is an NFL referee and marked man in Vegas since his blown call cost bettors a fortune. Vera and Merrill (Whoopi Goldberg, Lanei Chapman) are an understandably estranged mother and daughter. Duane (Seth Green) is a petty hustler, and his brother Blaine (Vince Vieluf) is unintelligible after a do-it-yourself tongue piercing. Randy (Jon Lovitz) and Nick (Breckin Meyer) are just nerds.

Oh, and there's narcoleptic Enrico Pollini, an Italian cousin to Mr. Bean played by that idiot's creator, Rowan Atkinson.

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Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., right, is part of Rat Race’s all-star cast.
The race among these rats starts slow until the most obvious modes of transportation are eliminated. When the contestants get cagey, Rat Race finally gets hilarious. Zucker devised ways to make me laugh that I've never seen before. They're the kind of gags that are too elaborate to describe fully, and you wouldn't want that anyway.

Let's just say that cows and hot air balloons are an interesting combination, and a Barbie museum may not be what you think. Jeeps aren't supposed to climb towers, and helicopters do wild things to vinyl swimming pools. You should always buy squirrels. Hitler played harmonica, people still love Lucy, and some things are faster than a speeding bullet. You don't get it now, but you will, and you'll laugh.

Telling punch lines wouldn't do justice to the humor, and that's the beauty of Rat Race. It's so layered, so deftly constructed for what is basically Cannonball Run 3. Zucker and screenwriter Andrew Breckman know how to set up jokes, laying out amusing riffs that will soon dovetail into cascading call-back laughs. Pay attention to each detail, because much of it will matter later. And perhaps again after that.

The cast is game for anything Zucker throws at them. Gooding finally gets a role to channel his Oscar acceptance enthusiasm, and Vieluf is a mush-mouthed standout. Cleese and Atkinson remain comedy treasures. Everybody makes affable ten-pins as Zucker's wacky imagination comes rolling through.Rat Race isn't It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but it's a funny, funny, funny, funny movie.

Rat Race

  • Grade: B+
  • Director: Jerry Zucker
  • Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, Kathy Najimy, Seth Green, Amy Smart, Breckin Meyer, Vince Vieluf, Wayne Knight, Lanei Chapman, Paul Rodriguez, Dave Thomas, Kathy Bates
  • Screenplay: Andrew Breckman
  • Rating: PG-13; crude humor, sexual situations, profanity, brief nudity
  • Running time: 115 min.

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