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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Rat Race has all sorts of flaws. As a movie it doesn’t stand up. But it has enough laughs to make an enjoyable night out. Your mileage will vary greatly on this movie. To help you decide how well you’ll like it, Movie Habit has created this helpful table.

Start with 2 1/2 stars — that’s our breakeven point. Then modify your score according to the criteria on the left:

If you... adjust your score by
are ready to laugh + 1/2
have seen the trailer - 1
have low expectations + 1/2
value character development - 1/2
plan to see it on opening weekend in a big crowd + 1/2

If your modified score is more than 2 1/2 stars, go see it. If your score is less than 2 1/2, skip it. If your score is exactly 2 1/2, well, you’re on your own.

That’s the Plot

Jon Lovitz (left) races a giant ratRat Race is the same movie as Cannonball Run, which was the same movie as Gumball Rally, which was the same movie as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. (The Blues Brothers fits in there somewhere as well.) A mismatched cast of characters must race across the U.S. for a big cash prize.

John Cleese plays an eccentric casino owner who selects six ordinary people to race from Las Vegas to Silver City, New Mexico, for two million dollars. Cleese actually has an ulterior motive, which is explained in a delightful subplot throughout the film.

That’s it. That’s the plot.

Go Rat Racer!

Some of the rat racers you might recognize are Rowan (“Mr. Bean”) Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth (“Scott Evil”) Green, and Jon Lovitz. The first fifteen minutes establishes each of these characters. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie completely ignores them. With six stories weaving together, there is only time for quick vignettes of over-the-top comedy, not for character development.

For example, Whoopi Goldberg reunites with her long-lost daughter in the film’s early scenes. But by the time the two of them start racing, there’s no time to expand on the concept of a mother and daughter seeing each other for the first time. They might just as well be two cousins. Or two strangers for that matter.

And Rowan Atkinson, funny as he is, seems out of place in this movie. His schtick is so exaggerated, so far out, that he seems to inhabit a completely different universe. Since his character is Italian, one wonders if the part wasn’t written for Roberto Benigni, who would have been great in this movie (the studio press release hints that Atkinson was not the first choice).

The Early Farrelly Brothers

Granted, you’re not likely to be going to this movie for its characters. All you want to know is whether the movie is funny. Unfortunately, I have to say yes, it is.

I was disappointed at how many of the jokes were revealed in the movie’s trailer. And yet even so, the movie was able to surprise me with a good, unexpected laugh in each scene. Often the humor was grossout material, but always in that edgy, clever way that defined the early Farrelly Brothers movies.

One of the most crucial elements to good comedy is pacing. With six (or more) stories to weave together, Rat Race never has to linger in any one story long enough to get boring. It’s a formula that’s almost guaranteed to work. All it costs is character development and plot depth, but we already ruled those out as unimportant.

“Big-Event, Ensemble Chase Comedy”

As I mentioned before, Rat Race is not original. Mad Mad World was made almost 40 years ago, and several copies have come since then. The Paramount press material calls this genre a “big-event, ensemble chase comedy.”

Whatever you call it, this genre is a strange relation to the disaster film. Both take people from all walks of life and thrust them together in an unusual situation. The main difference is that in a disaster movie, everyone cooperates. In a chase movie it’s every man for himself. (It’s appropriate that Rat Race should be directed by Jerry Zucker, who broke new comic ground in 1980 by spoofing the disaster movie with Airplane.)

Of all the films in this genre, Rat Race falls somewhere in the middle. A friend who remembers Cannonball Run all too well said that Rat Race was much better. However, I’d have to say that it’s just a cheap knockoff compared to Mad Mad World.

But for a generation of moviegoers that’s never seen a “big-event, ensemble chase comedy,” maybe Rat Race will be a revelation.