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Published: Sunday, 8/19/2001

Rat Race: Script, uneven cast bog quest for riches

BY CHRISTY LEMIRE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nearly 40 years ago, a cavalcade of comic geniuses starred in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

It was the story of a group of greedy strangers who outscheme and outwit each other in search of buried treasure, while an assortment of lazy cops sits around a police station, tracking their progress and trying to figure out who will get there first.

Rat Race claims it's not a remake of the 1963 film, but it's awfully similar.

This time, the story's about a group of greedy strangers who outscheme and outwit each other to reach a $2 million jackpot, while an international assortment of ultrawealthy gamblers sits in a Las Vegas penthouse, tracking their progress and betting on who will get there first.

Every once in a while, director Jerry Zucker pulls out a sight gag or a surreal comic moment reminiscent of movies he first made his name on: Airplane! and the Naked Gun series.

But most of the jokes telegraph themselves a mile away, so you can plan ahead not to laugh.

Jon Lovitz, from left, Seth Green, Amy Smart, Vince Vieluf, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Breckin Meyer and Lanai Chapman in a scene from the motion picture, "Rat Race." Jon Lovitz, from left, Seth Green, Amy Smart, Vince Vieluf, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Breckin Meyer and Lanai Chapman in a scene from the motion picture, "Rat Race."
AP Enlarge

Much of what made It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World so funny came from the strength of the cast - including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters - and the consistently quick, witty banter.

The players here - Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer, and Amy Smart - have varying degrees of individual star power. And the dialogue they have to work with from former Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman is sporadically funny at best.

The characters all happen to get a gold coin, inviting them to participate in the game, while playing slots at the Venetian hotel-casino.

As the hotel owner who sets up the race, John Cleese plays an eccentric, British version of Jeff Probst in this high-stakes game of Survivor.

Individual moments are memorable, such as the side bets the wealthy gamblers make while they wait for the race to end: whether a hooker will perform an especially kinky act involving a bathtub full of Pepto-Bismol, or the flavor of a certain piece of candy in an enormous box of chocolates. SCTV alum Dave Thomas makes these scenes work as the straight man.

Atkinson is funny for the first few minutes; all bugged-out eyes and gangly limbs, he's perfect for this kind of broad physical comedy. But his manic, Roberto Benigni-esque shtick gets tiresome quickly.

Lovitz is funny simply because he's Jon Lovitz; just seeing him on screen is good for a laugh. And there's an amusing cameo from Kathy Bates as a nutty woman who sells squirrels.

Some moments probably sounded funnier than they became in the execution. The idea of a cow dangling by a rope from a hot air balloon, floating through the air and slamming into the windshield of a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators probably looked good on paper. (It looks good just writing it.) But when it actually happens, the joke lands with a thud.

Then after functioning as a wacky, broad comedy for nearly two hours, the movie abruptly shifts gears with a feel-good ending.

And what's even worse, it features Smash Mouth singing their ubiquitous hit "All Star," which was already painfully hackneyed when the song appeared in Shrek three months ago.

It could have been worse, though. It could have been Who Let the Dogs Out. Oh, wait, that song comes on during the start of the race. Never mind.



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