"Rat Race", the new film directed by Jerry Zucker, of "Airplane!" fame, is a refreshing visit to a type of comedy film we haven't seen in a while.
Donald Sinclair (John Cleese), the owner of a large casino in Las Vegas, picks six people at random to compete in a race. The goal: $2 million in cash stashed in a train station locker in Silver City, New Mexico. The six people each receive a special coin through the casino's slot machines and soon learn of the race. Vera Baker and Merrill Jennings (Whoopi Goldberg and Lanei Chapman) are a mother and daughter reuniting at the casino after many years. Nick Shaffer (Breckin Meyer) is an uptight, by the book lawyer from Chicago, in town for a friend's bachelor party. Duane and Blaine Cody (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf) are brothers out to con anyone and everyone. Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is an NFL referee reviled the world over for his idiotic call at a recent game. Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz) is trying to escape a family trip by making a pit stop in Vegas. Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson) is an Italian tourist ready to go along for the ride, more the thrill than the gain. Each of these people reluctantly or willingly joins the race over 570 miles to the cash.
"Rat Race" represents a return, of sorts, to a style of comedy that hasn't been made in a while. Really a reworking of "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World", like the original film, "Rat Race" has very funny moments and also has moments that fall flat. The six teams separate and become six different stories of how these people make it from point A to point B. Of the six stories, four are funny, often hilarious, two are not.
Perhaps the funniest character is Enrico Pollini. Rowan Atkinson is a genius! the creator of Mr. Bean and Black Adder has appeared in far too few films. In 'Rat Race', he brilliantly creates exactly the type of tourist who would travel from Europe to America for the casinos. He obviously isn't a serious gambler, Europe has better casinos, but wants to experience new and varied things. A brilliant comedian, Atkinson creates many laughs through a mere facial twitch or slight body movement. His accent is also very restrained and even seems believable. Soon, he is joined in his journey by an ambulance driver (Wayne Knight). The reason for this addition is funny and becomes more and more bizarre.
I saw "Rat Race" at a preview on Saturday night. The next morning, I caught a screening of a classic Peter Sellers'/Blake Edward's film "The Party". I was struck by the similarities between the two characters. Sellers plays Harundi V. Bakshi, an Indian actor in Hollywood for the first time. Completely out of place, but trying to fit in, there are so many parallels between Bakshi and Pollini that I wonder if Atkinson was trying to pay homage to Sellers.
Seth Greene and Vince Vieluf play brothers who initially are out to con a casino. However, when the opportunity to gain $2 million drops in their lap, they set about sabotaging the rest of the crew. Their efforts lead to some very amusing physical comedy. Vieluf's character is also hampered by a recent self-inflicted puncture which further elaborates upon his character and motivations.
Cuba Gooding Jr. seems to have unleashed all of his overacting capabilities and it works. Desperate to get to the cash, he basically hijacks a busload of "I Love Lucy" conventioneers. Thankfully, the director and writer have included a homage to this classic show.
Perhaps the most consistently funny character is Randy Pear, played by Jon Lovitz. Pear's initial motivation for stopping at the casino is to let the wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids have a rest on the trip back from the Grand Canyon. He is on a family trip and brilliantly conveys that he would rather be anywhere else. When he is invited to join the race, he has to contend with the road trip from hell while trying to speed to the location. His family gets into some seriously funny situations, while mocking the overall concept of a family trip.
John Cleese, wearing a hilarious dental prosthetic, plays Donald Sinclair, the casino owner. It quickly becomes apparent what he is up to and our frequent visits to his group are funny.
The remaining two stories are not as successful. Nick Shaffer (Meyer) meets a female pilot (Amy Smart) at the airport. Soon, they are flying away together, trying to win the cash. This story is meant to be romantic, but it doesn't succeed. I didn't feel any chemistry between the two.
Whoopi Goldberg seems game, but her character is not interesting enough or funny enough to make it worth it. One of the many things "Race" has to its credit is that the writer has tried to create a back-story for each of the characters. Vera is in the casino to reunite with her successful daughter, the daughter she gave up for adoption. Unfortunately, after their initial meeting, they are instantly together and we never again see them bonding or arguing or anything other than trying to get to Silver City. It quickly becomes boring to see the two characters rattling along in one vehicle after another.
The ending also falls flat on its face. Protracted, boring and stupid, it instantly brings the film to a complete stop.
Overall, "Rat Race" is the funniest film of the summer. The filmmakers use a kitchen sink-type of approach (Attorney Gloria Allred pops up twice in a cameo) which creates a lot of laughs. A funny film that is as uneven as its predecessor.