Jokes, Not Jizz

Jerry Zuckers Rat Race

Given the mounting heap of large-scale movie disappointments—the ill-used brainchildren of dead and dull men in A.I., the shells of dead fads in Planet of the Apes, the deadly reruns of Rush Hour 2's tepid action—the release of Rat Race has been marked by an almost desperate hope for something, anything, that's actually entertaining. ("You've seen it? Is it good?" ask friends with the same urgency as kids and dope fiends.) The good news is that this off-the-wall ensemble comedy may just be the summer's happiest surprise. Written by SNLand David Letterman veteran Andy Breckman, and directed by Jerry Zucker (who, with Jim Abrahams and brother David Zucker, wrote and directed the all-time-funny farce Airplane!), the film draws on the 1960s mania for cross-country steeplechase comedies such as The Great Race, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies and, most specifically, the 1963 Stanley Kramer all-star Ultra Panavision blowout, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Like that film, Rat Racebegins (after perky novelty titles that nod to Saul Bass' Mad, Madopener) with a roundup of hapless schmoes, here milling about a Vegas casino. Among them are a chubby Middle American family on vacation headed by Kathy Najimy and Jon Lovitz (who's honed his pea-brained-creep persona to a razor's edge), a pair of half-assed grifter brothers looking to score (a great Seth Green and adorable newcomer Vince Vieluf), a simple-hearted mother (Whoopi Goldberg in a fright wig and miniskirt) reuniting with her long-lost daughter, and a pro-football referee (Cuba Gooding Jr.) lying low after making a disastrous call at the season's big game.

As in Mad, Mad, the objective of the film's various losers is a bag of cash—in this case, the $2 million promised by the casino's unctuous owner (John Cleese, in outlandish prosthetic teeth that make him look like George Hamilton, if George Hamilton were a walrus) to whoever first makes it from Vegas to the gold-rush town of Silver City, New Mexico. And, as in Mad, Mad World, a crazed marathon ensues, involving planes, trains and automobiles—and hot-air balloons, supersonic rockets and "Hitler's Benz"—as well as fateful shortcuts, dopey cameos and the release of profoundly inept malevolence among the formerly relatively well-behaved participants. Yet, while It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was, befitting its pretensions to event-size grandeur, a full three hours long (with intermission), Rat Raceis a much brisker business, flinging the viewer like a nut in a slingshot from a slow, preparatory opener through a whiz-bang arc of manic, absurd, frequently hilarious action.

It's a ride that requires surrender and a touch of patience, for the film's first quarter is limp and unpromising as the characters and their quirks are dutifully introduced. By the time the crew has gathered in the casino's meeting room to be briefed—after each scores a special gold coin at the slots—the sole sparks have come from an old lady's tumble down a flight of stairs and from British comedian Rowan Atkinson, who, all rubbery limbs and quivering nostrils, is mesmerizing as an Italian man-child with narcolepsy. "The only rule," says Cleese's punctilious ringleader to the assembled dolts, "is that there are no rules. . . . Go!" In a way, Cleese is sounding the start of the movie, as one by one the initially bewildered principals dash from the room and the pandemonium begins in earnest.

Rat Race is no Airplane!There's nothing that promises the evergreen appeal of "Don't call me Shirley," but neither is there any shortage of inspired mayhem and Rube Goldberg-esque escalations. Nor is the film a gross-out endurance test; funny here relies far less on doofus snickers over rivers of shit and jizz than on the joys of being silly and the rush of high-speed debacles set to bombastic musical clauses: Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King, Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz. Breckman and Zucker are more interested in tickling their audience than in sticking their fingers down its throat; their comedy is somehow smarter anddumber than that. It lets us laugh without having to pay the toll in squirming—much.

Of course, whether you can cotton to the movie's humor depends largely on your willingness to embrace the comic possibilities of airborne cows, a game of fetch with a human heart, or an international group of high rollers who wager on which of the hotel's maids will drop last from a high-mounted curtain rod. Then again, if you can resist a scene featuring Green and Vieluf in high histrionics after literally crashing a monster truck rally, or a blink-and-you-miss-it moment of downright shocking slapstick involving Atkinson and a fast-moving train, then you have no business at a Jerry Zucker comedy in the first place.

Rat Race was directed by Jerry Zucker; written by Andy Breckman; produced by Zucker, Janet Zucker and Sean Daniel; and stars John Cleese, Seth Green, Kathy Najimy, Jon Lovitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vince Vieluf. Now playing countywide.

 
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