Stanley Kramer’s all-star road race comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” may have been a huge success back in 1963, but watch the film today, and it’s readily apparent why this particular type of screen comedy has gone out of fashion in the ensuing thirty-plus years: the bloat of its three-hour-plus run time is matched by the heavy hand of its execution. While not a direct remake of that film, Jerry Zucker’s “Rat Race” matches more than “Mad”‘s race-in-pursuit-of-cash concept–like its predeccessor, it also makes comedy feel like hard work.
Not one, not two, but no less than three recent Academy Award winners–Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Kathy Bates (who also has the indignity of “American Outlaws” hitting the screens this week as well)–show up in this insanely labored farce in which a group of people are randomly selected by a Las Vegas casino mogul Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) to find $2 million stashed in a locker at a New Mexico train station. The point? To provide an unpredicable race for the betting whims of Sinclair’s wealthy international friends.
Nothing about “Rat Race,” however, isn’t predictable. Needless to say, none of the participants have a smooth trip from Sin City to the Land of Enchantment. Disgraced football referee Owen Templeton (Gooding) gets stuck driving a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators. Kooky Vera (Goldberg) and her long-lost daughter Merrill (Lanai Chapman) run afoul of a woman (Bates) selling squirrels. Nice guy Nick (Breckin Meyer) and his pilot companion (Amy Smart) flee the authorities after some dangerous antics with a helicopter. Greedy Duane (Seth Green) and his unintelligible, tongue-pierced brother Blaine (Vince Vieluf) deal with flying cows and a deceitful locksmith. Smarmy Randy (Jon Lovitz) is saddled with the baggage of his wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids and all the delays they get him into. Finally, wacky Enrico (Rowan Atkinson), must get past his own narcolepsy and a deliveryman (Wayne Knight) transporting a human heart.
The mechanical way in which all of their crises become increasingly contrived–for instance, Duane and Blaine’s car drifts off the road and ends up at a monster truck rally, where they just happen to park in the line of cars to be smashed–are way too forced to get a laugh. Ditto the performances; everyone mugs as if there were no soundtrack–which, come to think of it, would have been a very welcome alteration. Not only would the audience then be spared the screechy delivery of dialogue (particularly in the spectacularly laugh-free “bus full o’ Lucys” thread), but we also wouldn’t have to hear Smash Mouth’s once-catchy, now incredibly tired tune “All Star”–a not-so-subtle and oh-so-precious reference to the amount of talent this fiasco attracted.
Which brings up the question: why exactly did they get involved? Money has to be a major factor, but I also suspect another would be the attachment of director Zucker, who with brother David and Jim Abrahams made no less than the all-time comedy classic “Airplane!” and the underrated gutbuster “Top Secret!” But instead of delivering the equivalent of an “Airplane!,” everyone involved in “Rat Race” ended up making a monstrosity more akin to a plane crash.