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Rat Race (2001)


Crazies, Lucille Ball impersonators, redneck garage mechanics, neo-Nazis, dykes on bikes, cross-dressers, electrified dogs, flying cows, vomit contests, vindictive girlfriends, and Rowan Atkinson’s horrible Italian accent are the elements of success for Rat Race, the latest hilarious remake of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

I know how bad it sounds. But thanks to the comedic talents of Jon Lovitz, Atkinson, John Cleese, and Whoopi Goldberg, plus a sharp script written by Andy Breckman (a writer for TV Funhouse and one of the best Richard Pryor movies, Moving) Rat Race is much better than it should be. In the end, it’s summer junk food for the soul.

Through the orchestration of casino owner Donald Sinclair (John Cleese in one of best performances in recent years), six groups of people are brought together in a Vegas casino to race against each other in an attempt to reach a satchel of $2 million in locker 001 in the train station at Silver Lake, New Mexico.

The Pear family (headed by Jon Lovitz) finds its family vacation in Vegas interrupted, and the Cody brothers (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf) are two con artists whose personal injury suit against the casino goes awry. Mr. Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), an extremely cheerful but narcoleptic Italian man, represents the hare of this story. After falling asleep on the way out of the casino, he gets hit by a creepy ambulance driver named Zack (Wayne Knight) who is on his way to New Mexico with a live heart in a cooler. Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a disavowed NFL coach who blew a major call and is drowning himself in alcohol at the casino’s bar. Vera (Whoopi Goldberg) and her estranged daughter Merrill have reunited at the casino after Vera gave up Merrill for adoption years ago. Nick (Breckin Meyer) is an uptight lawyer-in-training. All of these clowns earn a shot at the money and head out across the desert.

Rat Race starts off with a mildly humorous tone and then unexpectedly ramps up to a full-blown gut buster. Jerry Zucker, co-director of such classics as Top Secret! and Airplane!, lends a veteran hand at handling the pace of the comedy and keeps the laughs coming in waves.

The main drawback of the film, though, is the lack of a solid third act. The humor completely dries up when all of the parties converge onstage with the band Smash Mouth. It ends up feeling like an old Three’s Company episode. And about as funny.

Tons of extras — tons! — on the DVD release, including some iffy deleted scenes, a funny gag reel (including a scene with Gooding and his signature line), and, most bizarrely, a series of recorded telephone calls with the principal actors provided in lieu of a commentary track. It’s strange, but oddly compelling. Kind of like the film itself.