Rat Race

Would you be in a movie with Whoopi Goldberg for two million dollars?

At first glance, Rat Race seems like the unholy offspring of the Cannonball Run movies, if they got drunk and slept with It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It's possible that in the early stages of its development, that's exactly what happened. But somehow along the line the filmmakers lucked into more than a few genuinely funny character actors. Then they accidentally threw in a somewhat coherent frame on which to hang all the action. To top it all off, not once does a member of the DeLuise family appear. How did this go so wrong? Don't they know that August releases are just supposed to suck?

Six characters in search of a payoff gather in the same Vegas casino, bound by their willingness to play a slot machine. Each one received a special token instead of a jackpot, bidding them to join casino owner Donald Sinclair (a distractingly false-toothed John Cleese) for a special brunch. After greeting them all, Sinclair reveals his purpose. In Silver Springs, New Mexico, he has stashed two million dollars in a locker. Each contestant gets a key. Whoever gets there first, gets the money.

On the other side of the mirror, however, lies the real action. At least a dozen high-rollers have gathered to bet on which one of the six will get the prize. Therein hangs the story, and the rest of the movie can be free to just set up gags.

And so it does. Director Jerry Zucker has not lost his touch from the old Airplane! days. Though it's clear that age has mellowed his hand somewhat, every now and then the old Kentucky Fried anarchy breaks through, even with actors who have no business thinking they're funny. (See: Goldberg, Whoopi.)

At times the comedy stops for exposition, and those moments drag. For some reason, we've lost the ability to tell a story and be funny at the same time. Still, credit Zucker and screenwriter Andy Breckman; even in dull moments, throwaway lines end up being set-ups for much funnier jokes later in the film, such as the aptly named Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz) casually mentioning that he will never drive a Volkswagen. This innocuous remark steamrolls into an outrageous series of gags involving the Third Reich.

Yes, as Mel Brooks has proven time and time again, Nazis can be funny. Echoing back to a time before the Farrelly Brothers, this film takes taboo subjects and dares us to laugh at them. And it's not just about how funny greed can be. Beneath a genial crowd-pleasing exterior beats the heart of a twisted black comedy. It never quite takes over, but it's there.

The higher-profile actors such as Goldberg and Cuba Gooding, Jr. really need their screentime cut down. As he has for his last half-dozen movies, Gooding does little more than jump around when he gets upset. Maybe if we stop talking about them, they'll go away.

Instead, the best work comes from the smaller comics. Lovitz fits his weird weasel persona into that of a harried family man, and it works. Proving he can twist his voice as well as his face, British cult comic Rowan Atkinson finds some great moments as an Italian drifter, without veering into cartoonishness. As Cleese's assistant, SCTV vet (and McKenzie Brother) Dave Thomas gets called a man devoid of personality. And yet, especially in a scene with a hooker, his struggle to hide his deep yearning stands out as brilliantly subtle work.

The new kids impress, too. Seth Green has held his own against Mike Meyers, so he has no trouble with this ensemble. His embryonic con man is a great character. Saddled with a possibly retarded brother, Green's Duane deserves bigger things than the tiny hustles he does. Vince Vieluf, as the brother Blaine, proves a perfect sidekick. Together they do more good sight gags with a car than Burt Reynold's entire filmography.

Though the film sort of piddles out near the end, it still packs a lot of comedic energy. Between this and Osmosis Jones, there may still be hope for comedy this year.

What's it worth? $6

Derek McCaw

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