Jerry Zucker returned to directing comedy with 2001’s all-out, all-star caper Rat Race and they really don’t make them like this anymore.
Spoilers for Rat Race lie ahead…
Like many comedies released in the early-2000s milieu, Rat Race doesn’t necessarily hold up spectacularly well. If you were to ask how much more 2001 it could be with its selection of ensemble cast members, its Baha Men theme song, its climactic Smash Mouth guest-appearance, and perhaps most of all, its now-unthinkably cavalier attitude to airport security, the answer would be none-more-2001.
The thing is, it was an old-fashioned sort of comedy when it was first released too.
Most often compared to films like Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the Cannonball Run movies, Jerry Zucker’s absurd comedy follows six teams of ordinary misfits who are randomly selected by Las Vegas casino tycoon Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) to take part in his elaborate high-rollers’ game. Each given an identical bus station locker key, they’re set on a no-holds-barred race from Vegas to Silver City in New Mexico, where the first to reach the locker will win $2 million.
The contestants include Breckin Meyer’s prudish attorney, Cuba Gooding Jr’s disgraced NFL referee, Jon Lovitz’s opportunistic family man, Whoopi Goldberg and Lanei Chapman’s recently reunited mother-and-daughter duo, Seth Green and Vince Vieluf’s hapless con-artist brothers, and Rowan Atkinson’s Italian tourist. As they screw themselves and each other over for a chance to get the cash, Sinclair and friends monitor their progress and bet on all the action.
As mentioned, some bits hold up better than others, but it remains that this isn’t a success of simple physical slapstick so much as a constantly escalating complement of stunt work and set-pieces. Air travel is ruled out early on, so the contestants resort to all kinds of other forms of transport along the way, including a helicopter, a monster truck, a Nazi touring car, and even a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators, in a desperate scramble that ends… well, we’ll get to that, but suffice to say, there are comic hits and misses throughout.
20 years on, this remains Zucker’s last feature directorial outing to date and while it’s not up there with Airplane! or Top Secret!, (Rat Race didn’t warrant an actual exclamation mark on its title, but it’s very much implied) there are plenty of laughs to be had here.
It may be a bit of a throwback, but intentionally or not, it may also be the last gasp for big ensemble-driven farce comedy movies before reality TV embraced and surpassed the exact premise that’s underway here.
On your marks…
Rat Race began as a spec script by screenwriter Darryl Quarles, who had later success with the Martin Lawrence comedies Big Momma’s House and Black Knight. The script was initially sold to Hollywood Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer before finding its way over to Paramount. In August 1999, the studio announced that late-night writer and Monk creator Andy Breckman had rewritten the screenplay and Zucker was officially attached to direct.
Over the following months, casting began in earnest, and Oscar winners Goldberg (who’d won her little gold bloke for Ghost) and Gooding Jr (who’d won a bit more recently for Jerry Maguire) were cast alongside comic actors like Atkinson, Cleese, and Lovitz. Cleese was apparently especially eager to be in the film, saying Breckman’s script was only the second movie he’d really wanted to be in just from reading it (the first was 1986’s Clockwise).
One more casting tidbit that’s come out recently, via the Fatman Beyond podcast, is that Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes were offered Seth Green and Vince Vieluf’s roles. They declined and went on to make Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, a similarly wacky, much more R-rated road-trip comedy that wound up arriving in US cinemas within a week of Rat Race.
Not long after the box-office success of Todd Phillips’ Road Trip, that film’s leads, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart, rounded out the film’s ensemble. With the cast in place, principal photography was promptly delayed from summer to autumn 2000 to avoid filming in swelteringly hot temperatures.
While the ensemble might not be dazzlingly star-studded even by the standards of the time, it’s worth remembering that this was coming directly between Jim Carrey’s $20-million paydays of the 1990s, and 2001’s other Vegas-centric ensemble caper, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.
On one hand, there are A-List comedy stars commanding higher salaries for leading comedy vehicles and on the other, you’ve got an entertaining but more grown-up run-around that doesn’t call upon its cast of Oscar winners and up-and-comers to mess about with toilet humour and slapstick. For everything in between, there’s Rat Race.
So, what does Rat Race get right? For starters, it’s not deep, it’s not clever, and it’s definitely not trying to be either. Where we can read things into the film and the context in which it came along with the benefit of hindsight, this is fully committed to stacking set-pieces on top of set-pieces on top of set-pieces.
The quite brief set-up still manages to feel quite limp and tepid, (the opener with Meyer arguing over what porn film he has or hasn’t watched during a hotel check-out is especially weak) but from the moment Cleese literally fires a starting gun, the film hurls itself onto six different routes to the finish line.
You couldn’t necessarily expand any one of them into a full feature based around those characters, but the stacking of them in such short order more than makes up for the hit-to-miss ratio. It may not be a patch on Zucker’s earlier beloved comedy co-credits, but it’s got enough going on that you’re always going to guffaw at something before long.
In terms of taste, some bits hold up better than others. A magnificent bad-taste detour involving Lovitz and his exasperated family (played brilliantly by Kathy Najimy, Brody Smith, and Jillian Marie Hubert) stopping at a roadside museum dedicated to Barbie (not that one) winds up with one of the film’s very best pay-offs. It’s a deeply stupid journey, but the destination is spectacular.
Meanwhile, Gooding Jr’s Owen features prominently most of the “problematic fave” aspects, which is a shame because he’s so game for the more harmless silly bits. Unfortunately, he’s also lumbered with repeated cheap gags about gender confusion, an old habit of 1990s Hollywood comedies. For our money, this is also one of the rare cases of a movie that’s better in its edited-for-afternoon-TV version, which omits a scene in which Owen coerces a bus driver into handing over his uniform by gasping about parts of women’s anatomy in a scary voice. Not big, not clever, but never that funny either.
In the main though, both the ensemble and the film are well served by the six-way structure. The characters are all pretty broad, but they’re not spread too thin by the divided screen-time. In particular, Rowan Atkinson benefits from appearing in short, fitfully funny bursts as his “Signore Bean” caricature, rather than leading the movie.
Elsewhere, the guest appearances are hardly up to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s standard of comedy greats, but there are funny asides involving Kathy Bates, (another Oscar winner there) Wayne Knight, and Dave Thomas. There are also some hilarious asides with Cleese MC’ing ever more deranged betting games from the comfort of his penthouse.
But arguably, the unsung heroes of the movie are the stunt team, led by second-unit director and veteran stuntman Mickey Gilbert, and his son, stunt coordinator Tim Gilbert. There are plenty of daft gags on the page, but the level of physical stunt work and vehicular mayhem goes way beyond a few pratfalls, and it lends the comic carnage some real scale.
The vehicular mayhem (mostly inflicted by Green and Vieluf, to the strains of classical music) ranges from jumping onto a hot-air balloon while being chased by a car in cruise control to a properly hair-raising helicopter chase that wouldn’t look out of place in a more serious action movie.
If the film follows the “bigger is funnier” ethos of Kramer’s original caper in any regard, it’s the staggering array of near-fatal incidents that occur throughout the race. It’s one way in which the film gets you invested in characters who are otherwise roundly unlikeable for most of the running time.
Most will agree that the film bottles it with its soppy climax, bringing the entire ensemble back together on stage at a benefit concert and forsaking all the stakes so they can boogie to a live performance of the all-pervading Smash Mouth hit, “All Star”, through the end credits.
While its essential faith in human goodness is admirable, it feels a little unearned at the end of a film all about the depths of humiliation to which people will sink for the love of money. “We could all use a little change” is right, just maybe not right for this…
Go! (You’ll never shine if you don’t glow…)
Back in August 2001, Rat Race was a modest box-office hit, opening in third place in the US top ten behind big comedy sequels American Pie 2 and Rush Hour 2. Despite mixed reviews, it went on to gross $85.5 million worldwide on a $48m budget, and was a popular title in the early days of DVD sales and rentals too. Later that year, Ocean’s Eleven cost more to make but also made a lot more, landing a spot in 2001’s top 5 highest-grossers.
By comparison, Rat Race’s old-fashioned ensemble caper approach may make it the last film of its kind yet made in the Hollywood studio system. Yes, there have been plenty of ensemble-driven comedy hits since then, but after this came out, there was a definite fall-off in this sort of grand PG-13 slapstick spoof on this scale. The main exceptions to that are the Anchorman movies, which are definitely more dialogue-driven than the wild, stunt-heavy, yet (broadly speaking) family-friendly comedy on offer here.
Although Zucker’s film is more influenced by earlier comedies, whether his own spoofs or other chase caper movies, it was released right on the cusp of reality TV dominating the small screen. Indeed, the director was astounded to learn during the press tour for the film that CBS was launching The Amazing Race just a few weeks later. Now shooting its 33rd season, the US TV game show also features small teams racing over great distances, and whichever team finishes first wins a grand prize of $1 million.
Over here in the UK, fans of BBC Two’s lockdown hit Race Across The World may also find themselves irresistibly reminded of the premise of the film, even though that show is altogether more good-natured than both Rat Race and most other reality formats in the intervening decades.
All in all, the film burns a lot of shoe leather for its laughs, and as a result, there’s barely a moment where it doesn’t feel contrived in one way or another. That needn’t be a fault of the film, but almost as soon as it hit cinemas, it was out-sillied by high-rolling reality show producers and the more natural, unforced errors of its contestants.
Well, the years start coming and they don’t stop coming – oh heck, there’s apparently no other way out of this:
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