Rat Race
directed by Jerry Zucker
(Paramount, 2001)

Sometimes, say, even on a weekend evening, the Rat Race isn't a bad place to be at all. Not the 9-to-5 rat race, mind you. Stick with Jerry Zucker's Rat Race, and you'll be just fine.

As a writer, Zucker brought you three Naked Gun movies as well as 1980's Airplane. Now you know the territory you're entering.

The premise doesn't stray far from 1963's classic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Chosen at random from the throngs of tourists in Las Vegas, there are six teams presented by mogul Donald P. Sinclair (John Cleese) with a proposition: Two million bucks in a locker in Silver City, N.M. Six keys to that locker. Every team gets a key. First team to Silver City wins.

The rules? They don't need no stinkin' rules. "The only rule," Sinclair insists, "is that there are no rules."

What these contestants don't know, as reality slowly dawns, is that Sinclair has a whole posse of high rollers putting bets on who will limp into Silver City first.

Will it be Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an NFL ref despised for blowing a nationally televised call? Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), a narcoleptic Italian? The Cody brothers, one of whom has a recent tongue piercing that prevents him from talking intelligibly?

Or Nick Schaffer, a man so straight-laced he won't take a newspaper from the casino lobby? Vera Baker and her long-lost daughter Merrill (Whoopi Goldberg and Lanei Chapman)? Or the Pear family (led by Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy), who are just in town to see David Copperfield?

The plot line's just enough to tie together what's really a series of situational sketches -- writer Andy Breckman got his start writing for Saturday Night Live, and that formula served him well -- and the sketches usually hold up well enough that the seams between them aren't too jarring.

And there are more than a few "rewind that" moments, scenes that are wonderfully goofy in the great Airplane tradition.

The whole storyline for the Pears, whose spur-of-the-moment stop at the Barbie Museum triggers a great case of mistaken identity, was enough to make the movie for me. The moment the full reality of their situation hits them is priceless -- in the great tradition, it flirts with, but for me never crosses, that invisible line of appalling taste.

As hard as Breckman and Zucker work on the main characters' competition, though, some of the small moments work the best: Whenever Sinclair is shown as the contest is under way, for example, the big-time gamblers aren't just sitting there, they're in the midst of some outrageous wager. Those moments are almost always in the background, so don't miss them.

The ending is the biggest "get this song in the soundtrack" gambit ever invented for film -- but, hey, I like Smash Mouth, so no harm done. It's a good addition to a collection that ranges from a bit of Edvard Grieg to "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate.

Now, that's entertainment.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 23 November 2002

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