Rat Race (2001)

A van carrying a human heart destined for transplant, a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators, a cow that goes up in the air as if it were a balloon. These are just three of the elements that make The Rat Race, Jerry Zucker's road comedy, one of the year's most chaotic and riotously funny movie.

Manic, messy, and quite silly for the most part, Rat Race marks Jerry Zucker return to comedy, after directing a number of popular dramas, including Ghost and First Knight. It brings together the talents of some of the most gifted comedians working in film today, including Jon Lovitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy, and a fabulous but uncredited Kathy Bates. With the help of a positive word-of-mouth, Paramount's late summer release (pushed back from June) stands a chance to go through the roof, perhaps even score a $100 million domestically. Despite its American humor and locale, the movie's broad slapstick and international cast, headed by Mr. Bean's Rowan Atkinson and the Monty Python's John Cleese, also bode well for a solid success in foreign markets.

Recalling Stanley Kramer's 1963 all-star comedy, It's a Mad World, which concerns a group of people racing to recover a hidden bank loot under Spencer Tracy's tight supervision, Rat Race revives a long-neglected tradition: The big-event chase comedy, revolving around a large ensemble. Containing big visual stunts and sight gags, which fulfill the same function as big production numbers in a musical, Rat Race could be described as a manically messy James Bond comedy.

The premise is simple but effective. Determined to keep his wealthiest high rollers happy, Vegas casino tycoon, Donald Sinclair (Cleese), concocts a new, semi-legal sporting event for them to bet on, a human “rat race.” “I can do anything I want to, I'm eccentric,” he exclaims, which no one challenges. Sinclair has put six specially minted gold coins in six different slot machines, and anyone who wins a coin is welcome to join. The “big cheese” is two million dollars in cash, placed in a duffel bag in a locker room in Silver City, New Mexico. Randomly chosen, the six Rat Racers are ordinary people.

In a rapid manner, viewers are introduced to the eccentric ensemble. Vera Baker (Goldberg), having given up her baby up for adoption, decides it's time to finally meet her daughter in Vegas's Venetian Hotel. Owen Templeton (Gooding Jr.), who has blown a call in an important NFL game, is drowning his sorrow and attempt to escape his newfound authority at the Venetian's casino-bar. Mr. Pollini (Atkinson) is an exuberantly cheerful Italian, who happens to be narcoleptic.

Then there's the Pear family, which drives nuts father-husband Randy (Lovitz) in their hotel, pushing him in the midst of a vacation to the casino to play lot machines. The Cody brothers (Green and Vieluf) are criminally minded misfits with a special penchant for causing mayhem and mischief wherever they go. Rounding out the cast are Nick (Meyer), a cynical lawyer in training, and Tracy (Smart), a vivacious pilot who makes the fateful mistake of stopping at her boyfriend's house, where he's caught cheating on her.

The Racers are engaged in a kind of contest in which anything goes. Indeed, they use every means of transportation imaginable–plane, train, helicopter, horse, cow–practically anything that moves to reach their destination. Embodying the crass, ruthlessly materialistic nature of American culture (after all, the movie is set in Vegas), the match has no rules or mores, which encourages the contestants to cheat, lie, and even sabotage each other. What the Racers are unaware of is that Sinclair and his gambling-crazed people are tracking their every move–like rats in a research lab–and betting on the outcome.

Each of the characters is put in a series of funny and bizarre situations, too chaotic and senseless to be described in words. En route, one man commandeers a bus with 40 Lucille Ball impersonators, and another rides shotgun in an organ-donor truck.
One of the picture's most hilarious highlights is an encounter between the mother-daughter team and a woman describing herself as a “squirrel lady.”

Jerry Zucker has made his name burlesquing genre movies with his partners David Zucker and Jim Abrahams (Airplane! The Naked Gun, Ruthless People) before helming Ghost on his own. Few helmers have been as good with slapstick as the Zuckers-Abrahams team. Rat Race, which should not be confused with the 1960 Robert Mulligan comedy of the same title starring Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds, is staged as a broad comedy, with mass zaniness that makes nasty fun of the people themselves.

As in his previous collaborations, Zucker is committed to brutal insults, attacks on pop culture cliches, and outrageous obscenities that are basically juvenilia material. Working in low-satirical, comic-book style, he grinds healthy laughs out of meatball parody.

Jim Carrey was destined to star, but his tag-price of $20 million scared the producers, and instead they opted for a lesser-name cast, from which the movie benefits: The lack of mega-stars makes the characters' more ordinary, their desperation more believable.