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Friday, October 8, 2010

Rat Race

Title: Rat Race

Year of Release: 2001

Date Viewed: October 3rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Place your bets on your favorite comedian. They're about to race!

Helmed by one of the co-directors of Airplane, this loose re-imagining of 1963's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World stars over a dozen actors that were popular in 2001 with only some retaining that popularity today. I don't really believe it's fair to draw a direct comparison between these two films. But if you insist on doing so, you can give the edge to Mad World for having the more reputable cast.

The story begins in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are introduced to a series of otherwise unconnected gamblers. Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman are a mother/daughter pair reuniting for the first time since their early separation. Jon Lovitz is an average family man in town to see a live David Copperfield performance. Seth Green and Vince Vieluf are brothers barely making ends meet hoping to catch their lucky break. Cuba Gooding Jr. is an NFL referee hiding out in Las Vegas to avoid the media that's mocking him for a recent controversy. Breckin Meyer is an uptight aspiring lawyer. And last but not least, Rowan Atkinson is a foreign visitor who keeps fumbling the English language in humorous ways.

All the characters win a special slot machine token that promises a "once in a lifetime opportunity." They are summoned by Vegas hotel owner and billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese). They have all been randomly selected as contestants in his game. In Silver City New Mexico, there is a locker located in a train station that contains a bag with two million dollars in cash inside. Each of the contestants are given an identical matching key that opens up the locker. The individual or team that reaches the loot first gets to keep the entire prize while the rest go home empty-handed. There are no rules to the game. Reach the goal first by any means necessary.

Is this game just an exhibition of Sinclair's generosity? Of course not. As the uptight lawyer points out, there is always an angle. Sinclair is a gambler too. He is part of the highest rollers of Vegas that enjoy betting on anything and everything. To go into further detail would spoil some gags. This race is just one of the many things that his club are trying to bet and win big on.

That about sums up the plot. The rest is a nonstop fun ride involving planes, trains and automobiles. Sadly no John Hughes involvement though.

It's essentially a "one gag followed by another" kind of movie. The first fifteen minutes is agonizingly slow and would cause most watchers to wonder if they had invested in something beneath their intelligence level. But underneath all its zaniness, Rat Race is a patient film. The parts add up to the whole. Some scenes that seem pointless early on will have a payoff down the road. My favorite running gag involves Jon Lovitz's character losing his vehicle then hijacking an antique car formerly owned by Adolf Hitler's army. Trouble follows him and each situation is funnier than the last.

This is one of those comedies that I like to pull from the DVD shelves whenever I'm hosting company. It's amusing to watch how different people react to different material. Some scenes that you expect to draw laughs do not and vice versa. I feel obligated to warn that some of the gags are not for the easily offended. One friend almost walked out after watching Rowan Atkinson's character mishandle a human organ that was being transported for surgery. It might have hit a little too close to home. It's probably best to know your audience a little bit before suggesting this for an evening's entertainment.

Other gags simply wear out their welcome by the second half. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character commandeers a tour bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators on their way to an I Love Lucy convention. Amusing at first, but I wanted to plug up my ears after the fourth "Lucy whine". Gooding himself is actually golden in this. Around the time of this movie's release, he had mainly been known for dramas and I remember being surprised at how good he was at making a panic attack funny.

The only seriously frustrating part is the finale. It almost works because it ties up all the loose ends, remains loyal to the characters who I grew to love, and ends on a welcome happy note. But it doesn't work because it is doomed to be forever dated with the pop culture that it's associated with. It's a glaring example of how studios can sell themselves out through commercialism at the cost of remaining timeless. I have not seen It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad world, but many film fanatics that I mingle with consider it to be a timeless classic. I sort of broke my own promise of not comparing the movies but I had to point out a reason for why Rat Race is not a classic despite having so much in common with its inspiration.

The moments of brilliance in Rat Race always make me forget about its shortcomings. That's why I enjoy revisiting it as often as I do. I would love to see some readers share their favorite moments if they feel inclined enough.

Rating: 7


  1. I've been thinking of ways to riff this since Monday morning. I blame you. :D

  2. Growing up, this was one of my favorite comedies. I owned a VHS copy of the film and I would watch it every day when I came home from school.

    Good stuff....

  3. Sounds like there's a lot of things that need your riffing treatment, Ellen. You'd better get busy.

    Hey, my first multi-comment post. Thanks guys!

  4. I've seen both movies and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is the better of the two, but Rat Race is good in its own right. Both of them are sort of time capsules of who was popular in comedy or acting at the times the movies were made.