COMEDY: Rat Race (2001)

Rat Race (USA, 2001)
Directed by Jerry Zucker
Starring John Cleese, Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, Rowan Atkinson

It's often the case that the individual members of a creative team cannot match the success or acclaim of their collective outputs when it comes to their solo work. While John Cleese has enjoyed the success of Fawlty Towers and Terry Gilliam has made some of the most imaginative films of the last 40 years, virtually nothing the individual Pythons have achieved has managed to surpass their work together, at least not within the minds of their paying public.
The stock of the team once known as Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker has fallen some way since the halcyon days of Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. While David Zucker and Jim Abrahams have busied themselves with the Scary Movie series and the awful An American Carol, Jerry Zucker has been relatively quiet. Rat Race is the last film that he has directed to date, and while it's hardly terrible, it isn't up to the standards that he once set for himself.
If nothing else is true about it, Rat Race is of interest from an historical point of view. Along with the more respectable Love, Actually, it marks the return of the epic, 'guest list' ensemble comedy. The film takes a great deal of inspiration from the likes of The Great Race, Scavanger Hunt and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, sharing both the general, chase movie premise and the conceit of having so many big stars together.
The 'guest list' film has always been an expansive gamble, even in a Hollywood which regularly stakes $250m on a single weekend. The high budgets of these films were often a sting in the tail to the popularity that they enjoyed: despite being a huge hit, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World only made a profit of $1.25m. But the success of Rat Race and Love, Actually has ensured that such films are still being made, with the likes of Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve and What To Expect When You're Expecting (though their status as comedies can be easily disputed).
Like many of its predecessors, the film's central premise is very simple: there is a bag of money at a certain location, and whoever gets there first gets the lot. From there the quality of a film as a whole, or any given scene therein, is dependent on the skill or appeal of the actors that it features. Zucker's job, such as it is, is to harness that energy into something resembling a plot and keep us interested.
For the most part, Rat Race is a very loud and shambolic affair. It attempts to follow the formula that Zucker helped to pioneer, with rapid-fire jokes and lots of physical gags to leave the audience too breathless to poke holes in the plot. But because the film is aiming for more of a family audience (gaining a 12 certificate in the UK), it lacks the edge or bite of Zucker's previous productions, notwithstanding any decline in the standard of the remaining jokes.
Much like We're The Millers, there is something uncomfortably mean-spirited about Rat Race which is not present in earlier offerings from the same genre. It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had its moments in which characters suffered great misfortune or were made fun of, but all these things were done in the context of a wider purpose. However ramshackle the film may be, in any of its versions, there is a satirical element to it about greed and its futility which gets carried all the way through.
Rat Race, by contrast, attempts to have its cake and eat it, being really mean towards its characters throughout and then trying to soften the blow during the big climax. Many of its characterisations have an exploitative quality to them, such as Seth Green's brother who cannot speak properly due to all his piercings. While the film eventually digs a little deeper and shows that it has something approaching a heart, for most of its running time it's content to laugh at the people we are following rather than encouraging us to laugh with them in their wacky circumstances.
Much of the physical comedy in Rat Race is closer to Jackass than anything that Zucker attempted in his prime. The mishaps involving the two brothers, the jeep and the monster trucks are only a hop, skip and jump from the style associated with Johnny Knoxville and his MTV associates. It's understandable, given that Zucker has access to more money and better effects than he enjoyed on Airplane!. But in having this big box of toys, he misses out on his chance to poke fun at the genre, using creakier effects to expose its limitations.
There are sections of Rat Race which are funny, at least intermittently. John Cleese's gleefully hammy Donald Sinclair is pretty entertaining throughout; though he's clearly not trying very hard, it is a part for which he is naturally suited. Likewise Rowan Atkinson's comic timing remains intact; again, it's not much of a stretch, but his character lacks any of the unintentional creepiness present in Mr. Bean's Holiday.
Other performers who are not as naturally gifted do not fare quite so well. Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar with Zucker on Ghost, is a little underused, while Lanai Chapman is too uptight and screechy to be likeable as her estranged daughter. John Lovitz looks as disinterested here as he does in Southland Tales, though in this case he does seem to have a good idea of what is going on and what it all means. Others, like Seth Green and Wayne Knight, are just phoning it in, with the latter doing a very similar routine to his appearance in Jurassic Park eight years before.
Individual set-pieces do come off, particularly the squirrel joke involving Goldberg and Cathy Bates. But often the film undercuts itself in this regard, having to constantly make the situations more and more ridiculous in a bid to keep us interested. After the squirrel gag, the sensible thing would have been to cut to something calmer and then return a few minutes later. Instead, we practically wander straight into the scene with the rocket car, as if nothing had happened.
While some set-pieces work well, others are genuinely grating. Among the most grating is the long section involving Cuba Gooding Jr. and a bus fall of Lucille Ball impersonators. Firstly, there is the depression of seeing Gooding in a film like this only four years after his Oscar win for Jerry Maguire. Then there is the fact that few of the film's target audience will understand the joke - Lucille Ball is hardly the height of comedy fashion. This marriage of depression and outdated references leaves a vacuum where the laughs should be, slowing the whole film down.
You go through most of Rat Race laughing sporadically while occasionally glancing at your watch - and then we come to the ending. The ending, involving a charity concert helmed by Smash Mouth (them off the Shrek soundtrack), is a real heart-over-head experience. Every rational part of you is screaming at how insultingly cheap the film is being, attempting to send us out on a feel-good, schmaltzy note so that we forget the tedious bits that have gone before. But somehow, in spite of ourselves, we go with it and it manages to register emotionally on some level.
Rat Race is a comedy that partially succeeds and which is often enjoyed in spite of ourselves. Its satirical credentials are non-existent compared to It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and it fails to fire consistently even when going for the simplest of laughs. But even with all its mean-spirited touches, it's still a relatively innocuous way to wile away 90-odd minutes. If nothing else, it's funnier than all the Scary Movies put together.


I wrote a piece for WhatCulture! back in 2012 about the rise of a mean-spirited streak in comedy after the 1980s. You can read the article here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Da Vinci Code (2006)