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Rat Race

As I've mentioned in these pages before, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World  was one of my favorite movies growing up. Every time it was on television, my grandpa and I would curl up on the couch and laugh our heads off at the antics of Milton Berle, Ethel Merman and the dozens of other comics looking for "the big W." So it was with a great amount of trepidation that I walked into Rat Race, a new movie based on that old classic.

The first fifteen minutes of Rat Race did not alleviate my fears, as I was slowly introduced, one by one, to the movie's main characters: Vera Baker and her up-tight daughter Merrill (Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman), down-on-his luck referee Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the narcoleptic Italian Mr. Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), Randy Pear and his family of four (Jon Lovitz), the scheming Cody brothers (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf), and straight-laced lawyer Nick Shaffer (Breckin Meyer). These eight people are randomly chosen at a Las Vegas casino to race across the desert, the winner to get $2 million.

If you're familiar with Mad, Mad World (and if you're not, get thee to a video store), you'll notice that Rat Race has made an important change. In the original, the posse of money-hunters found out about the loot by accident--an old con-man died and related a somewhat outlandish tale about "250 G's" buried under a "big W in Santa Rosita Park." This set-up created a nice bit of uncertainty (was there actually money buried a couple hundred miles away?) as well as poked fun at humanity's lust for riches. The remake is unfortunately more straight-forward.

In Rat Race's favor, the new conceit provides some wonderful material for John Cleese (the casino's eccentric owner) and his band of wealthy gamblers who place bets on a whole host of esoteric events. And the race itself still has plenty of opportunities for comic hijinks, including the standard vehicular difficulties and wayward travel.

As in Mad, Mad World, the comic actors fare much better than the straight ones. Jon Lovitz (Small Time Crooks) is hilarious as a put-upon father who drags his family across Arizona and New Mexico. When their mini-van falls apart, he steals what used to be Hitler's limousine, with a gang of neo-Nazis in hot pursuit. Seth Green (Austin Powers) is great as a devious young man whose schemes invariably fail. And Whoopi Goldberg makes a nice return to film comedy after years of more dramatic roles.

The same can't be said of Breckin Meyer (Road Trip), Amy Smart (Road Trip), Lanai Chapman (White Men Can't Jump), and especially Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Men of Honor). I suspect that Gooding was trying to reprise Jonathan Winters's truck driver from the original. But his comic timing is horrible, and he's reduced to making weird faces and looking surprised. It's one of the most painful performances of the year.

Fortunately, director Jerry Zucker (Ghost) knows which side his bread is buttered on, and focuses most of the movie's attention on the better comedians. I could've used more John Cleese, but there were still enough laughs to keep me smiling. Thankfully, screenwriter Andy Breckman mostly eschews the gross-out comedy that's so prevalent today. And the film's few forays in that direction--one involves a man using a cow's udder as a weapon and another scene features a young child defecating out of a car window--are quite funny.

The movie's conclusion is another matter. While the original's ending was a wonderfully drawn-out affair, full of biting cynicism, Rat Race shoots for the optimistic, going so far as to feature a full-length Smashmouth video.It's 
azing that the remake , which at 90 minutes is only half of the original, could still feel too long. 

by J. Robert Parks 8/13/2001

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