THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Words won't be able to accurately describe how much I hated Rat Race. Oh sure, I could use words such as insipid, excruciating, moronic and putrid, but somehow they fail to really convey the seething contempt that bubbled up within me as I watched this film. At times like these, I wish I had the grace and eloquence of a writer like Michael Chabon (whose excellent book "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" I am currently devouring). He would surely come up with an elegant piece of prose about how Rat Race sucks like a black hole deep in space, pulling all light into itself and consuming it, burying it in an ever-expanding darkness, never to be seen again. Or something like that.

A group of strangers competes for $2 million in Rat Race
The movie starts in Las Vegas where a ragtag group of gamblers are brought together to participate in a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. They include: a mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and her long-lost daughter with whom she has just been reunited; a straight arrow young lawyer (Breckin Meyer); two con artists (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf); a dopey family man (Jon Lovitz); a shamed football referee who made a famously bad call (Cuba Gooding, Jr.); and a strange Roberto Begnini-esque foreign guy with narcolepsy (Rowan Atkinson). The group is called together by a multimillionaire (John Cleese) and told that $2 million sits in a New Mexico bus station locker. The first one there wins.

Thus begins a madcap race for the cash. The opponents do everything they can to get ahead of one another, but fate has its own plans in store. Gooding, for example, ends up hijacking a bus full of Lucy impersonators (when the bus is rendered unusable, they simultaneously scream their idol's trademark "Wahhhh!"). Some of the mishaps are just stupid, like that one, but others are downright offensive. The Lovitz character and his family (all Jewish) end up behind the wheel of Adolf Hitler's car after stealing it from a Nazi museum. Lovitz then gets a smudge of grease under his nose, resembling a Hitler mustache. This is the kind of thing Mel Brooks used to get away with. It takes a certain satiric sensibility to pull off dicey humor of this variety. When it's just staged as a generic gag, it becomes really tasteless. Speaking of tasteless, there's another scene where Lovitz's young daughter has to "go number-two." Not wanting to lose time, he makes her stick her rear end out the window of a moving car to defecate.

This movie is nothing but one piece of forced wackiness after another. That includes flying cows, a delivery man (Wayne Knight) who plays with the human heart he is supposed to transport, a rocket car, and a bus load of mentally ill people, all of whom are played with the worst possible politically incorrect stereotypes. I haven't even mentioned such inane shtick as the "squirrel lady" (Kathy Bates) who runs cars off the road for refusing to buy one of her rodents.

Rat Race is a throwback to those old films like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Race, and [shudder] The Cannonball Run. The problem is that those movies were never any good to begin with. When you take so many comedians and shove them into the same movie, jealousy breaks out. Everyone wants to be the funniest one in the movie, so they all start playing to the camera, overacting, and generally embarrassing themselves. Compounding the problem is that Rat Race features stars of dubious talent (Kathy Najimy, Jon Lovitz) and stars who have talent but often use it poorly (Whoopi Goldberg) alongside stars of indisputable talent who are slumming by being here (John Cleese, Cuba Gooding). A more consistently sterling cast wouldn't have helped considerably (the screenplay is just that atrocious) but it might have been a start.

Perhaps what I hated the most was the ending. I don't want to give anything away, but why can't somebody actually win in one of these movies? The whole premise is that one lucky person will win $2 million by getting there first. Why cop out and try to offer some phony, half-assed warm and fuzzy ending? Comedies are supposed to be edgy. Make the competitors real cutthroats and let one of them walk away with the cash.

I didn't laugh once at Rat Race. I chuckled twice because John Cleese, even at his worst, is so funny that he can get in a sharp line reading or two. But I kid you not - this movie was painful to watch. It was directed by Jerry Zucker, who once redefined movie comedy with Airplane and the Naked Gun movies. Rat Race has none of the wit or sharpness of Zucker's previous films. It is one of the most obnoxious and unfunny comedies I have ever seen. Dig out the rat poison.

( out of four)

Rat Race is rated PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor, partial nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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