It's apt that the opening credits for Rat Race present pictures of the cast as a cross between marionettes and cardboard cut-outs, since the movie features slapstick on the Punch-and-Judy level.
You lose count of the bonked heads and not-so-funny faces, even, in one scene, of the number of times a body gets slammed against cows. The funniest bit comes with the final credit announcing that only humans, not animals, were harmed in making this film. I hope that doesn't refer to the actors' reputations.
Directed by Jerry Zucker in a catastrophic comedown from the packed, fast style of Airplane! (which he co-directed), this picture substitutes a low-comedy high concept for the scene-to-scene precision or cleverness of classic slapstick.
The plot features a race from Las Vegas to Silver City, N.M., to claim a $2 million jackpot. The racers are unwitting players in an even bigger game: Filthy-rich gambling impresario John Cleese has gathered the world's wealthiest men to bet on who will win.
This picture is patterned on the all-star treasure-hunt movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (itself a bloated, clumsy comedy). But Rat Race doesn't present an array of stars, and even the ones it does have don't resemble stars here. This is a Mad World movie for the era of reality TV - basically, Cleese's fat cats are the audience for a miniaturized, land-race version of Survivor - and everybody in it is lit or made up to appear weathered or grotesque. The skin surrounding Cleese's super-straight, Ultra-Brite teeth looks like deteriorating papyrus.
The screenwriter, Andrew Breckman, has a funny idea or two. Jon Lovitz plays a Jewish family man who won't allow his daughter to drive a Volkswagen Beetle but ends up transporting the whole clan in Adolf Hitler's touring car.
Breckman is a Saturday Night Live alumnus, and Lovitz's performance of a desperate, would-be clever guy who can barely con his wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids is close to the wheedling, recurring characters he played on SNL.
The role could have been written for him, and that might explain why Lovitz is effective here, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and Cleese and Seth Green and Whoopi Goldberg stumble all over themselves. Slapstick relies on performers with personalities so distinct they don't blur in a rush of outrageous action. Most of the Rat Race cast members aren't given personalities; they're more like walking sitcoms.
Gooding plays an NFL ref who's become infamous for miscalling a coin toss; Goldberg is a mother who gave up her daughter at birth, and reunites decades later with a grown-up, ice-cold workaholic (Lanei Chapman); and Green is a clumsy grifter with a brother (Vince Vieluf) who can barely speak because of a self-performed tongue piercing. There's nothing inherently funny about them as people.
Rowan Atkinson puts on an outrageous Italian accent that falls flat, and his moments of physical comedy never ignite into hilarity.
If Zucker can't figure out what to do with Atkinson's physical comedy, it's because he has no idea of how to set and dress the picture frame for comedy except when (as in Airplane!) he's cramming it with jokes.
Good slapstick makes you antsy in a positive way, alert to the barest hints of catastrophe that lurk in the corner of a shot until, say, an actor plummets through an open airplane door. It follows Hitchcock's notion of genuine suspense; it's generated by letting the audience know there's a ticking bomb, not by exploding one out of the blue.
When Zucker prepares a pratfall in Rat Race, it's with blunderbuss finesse; most of the time he scatters jokes with a pellet gun. He puts in motion scores of sight gags, and then exploits them just enough to give viewers the idea that something funny is happening.
Despite these flaws, people sick of gross-out films and teen-sex comedy may be so hungry for farce that they laugh. When Zucker piles on the cows - and keeps using one, periodically, for the rest of the film - it's as if he's throwing sides of beef at a starving audience.
Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jon Lovitz, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson and Seth Green
Directed by Jerry Zucker
Running time 102 minutes
Released by Paramount
Sun score * 1/2