Director David Zucker revisits his zany “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!” days with a broad, physical comedy called “Rat Race.” The title is ironic, however, given how slow and without momentum the thing is.
Zillionaire casino owner Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) lures in six tourists and puts them all in a race from Las Vegas to Silver City, N.M. First one there gets $2 million cash. What’s in it for Sinclair? He’s got high-rollers from around the world watching the contestants’ progress and placing bets on the outcome. It’s a horse race, but with horses who can lie, cheat and (occasionally) think.
The racers: Buttoned-down lawyer Nick (Breckin Meyer), who is joined by psychotic helicopter pilot Tracy (Amy Smart); slightly dim Vera (Whoopi Goldberg) and her upwardly mobile daughter Merill (Lanei Chapman); scheming brothers Blaine (Vince Vieluf) and Duane (Seth Green); schlumpy middle-aged guy Randy (Jon Lovitz) and his wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids (Brody Smith, Jillian Marie); hapless football referee Owen (Cuba Gooding Jr.); and narcoleptic Italian Enrico (Rowan Atkinson).
This is a “one-thing-after-another” comedy, the kind where your pants fall down, then a vat of pudding falls on you, then a horse tries to lick it off, and then your mother-in-law walks in. It’s the kind of movie where cars are always veering off the road and crashing through fences, and where people accidentally find themselves in the middle of a monster truck show, a bus full of crazy people, a Smash Mouth concert, a World War II veterans convention, and others too numerous to list. Each zany circumstance comes close on the heels of the one before it, each one serving the film only in that it gets the characters closer to New Mexico. None of them ever becomes more exasperated or more desperate or more introspective or more anything else. When it’s over, no one is any different from the way he or she began.
Which is fine for a farce, of course, except that Zucker has clearly lost his touch for this sort of thing over the years. (His last two major directing projects were “Ghost” and “First Knight.”) “Rat Race” has the attitude, wacky cameos and visual-not-verbal style of “Airplane!,” et al., but is much slower and less funny. People like Cleese, Atkinson and Lovitz are well-regarded for their comic ability, but none of them registers much here.
There are laughs, however, sporadic though they may be. Lovitz’s character, who is terrified of Hitler, winds up accidentally impersonating him. (For some reason, burning his tongue makes him speak German.) An extended slow-motion sequence involving Green and Vieluf is fun. And there’s something comedically perfect about a Lucille Ball impersonator’s hair catching on fire. A few other chuckles surface here and there. And so it goes.
It’s a fine cast — Kathy Baker and Dave Thomas join those already named — and there’s a lot of talent swimming around. Some snappier editing and a polished-up script would have made this a winner. Instead, it’s an also-ran.
C+ (; )