If you’ve seen Rat Race, chances are it wasn’t by choice. Along with Ace Ventura, Spy Kids 2 and Little Nicky, it is simply one of those films that nobody actively decides to watch but has undoubtedly at some point found themselves watching, probably during secondary school wet break. However, despite never being listed alongside early noughties comedy greats as Zoolander or Meet the Parents, it is worth far more than its 44% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests.
First off, Rat Race features a world class comedic ensemble. John Cleese heads up the cast as the blindingly white-toothed billionaire who lures a bunch of random idiots into chasing down $2 million across the American Southwest in order to bet on them with his rich cronies. Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Wayne Knight, Seth Green, Amy Smart and Breckin Meyer all show up for the fun. As Atkinson’s performance as Italian narcoleptic Enrico quickly establishes, chewing the scenery is simply a matter of course for all involved and Rat Race is much better for it.
Directed by one third of the writing-directing team behind Airplane!, Jerry Zucker, there’s no pretending that Rat Race is a patch on the eighties classic. That said, it’s a very different movie; there’s no “Don’t call me Shirley” wordplay fun. Instead, the emphasis here is less on wit, and more on slapstick. There’s no real subtlety to the moment when Cuba Gooding Jr. – on the downwards curve of his post-Oscar career – forces a bus driver to hand over his clothes in order to steal his bus. “My wife is having a baby!” he yells, throwing out any female genitalia-related word he can think of as the bus driver undresses with increasing speed. Though having Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. yell “Vagina!” seems like a low point, even for Rat Race, the joke plays: making fun of men being uncomfortable with gynecological issues will never not be funny.
The characters are pretty much all despicable people, with the exception of an adorable Breckin Meyer (hi Breckin!). This could kill the movie stone-dead but really, the correct viewing approach is to immediately decide you hate them all and want none of them to win. There’s a sick joy in watching them slowly uncover the depths to which they are willing to sink for money. Thankfully, Zucker never attempts to shoehorn in any genuine emotional beats. Even the deliciously ironic end, which sees Smash Mouth force them all to give their money to charity, doesn’t totally forgive them of their greed. Except for Breckin Meyer, obviously.
The set pieces are absurd… ly fantastic. From Amy Smart flying a chopper practically into her ex-boyfriend’s house to Seth Green and co. accidentally tying a cow to a hot air balloon, to Jon Lovitz and family accidentally gatecrashing a veterans event while in Hitler’s car, Rat Race doesn’t concern itself with trivial things like plausibility and ‘the law’; instead it shoves Whoopi Goldberg (another Academy Award winner) inside the fastest car on earth and makes her break the speed of sound. How can you not be on board with a ride like that?
As a ‘chase’ film, Rat Race does unequivocally stand up. We have a variety of modes of transport: monster truck, helicopter, truck, fastest car on earth and an I Love Lucy tour bus. And to give Zucker credit where credit is due, the sense of momentum does not let up. Though the contestants’ journeys are often stop-start, their enforced pauses are only serve to increase the tension. Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz)’s accidental family excursion to the Nazi Klaus Barbie museum does bring a genuine sweatdrop to the forehead and you can’t help but sympathise with Enrico (Atkinson) as he hunts for a donor heart in scrubland with the disturbingly hapless Zack (Knight). The insanity of the race itself is effectively contrasted by the relative inertia of John Cleese and friends in his Las Vegas hotel and it’s nice that they’re there at the end to get their own comeuppance.
At its heart, Rat Race is a morality tale for us all. The characters reveal themselves as personifications of greed, selfishness and ruthlessness whose moral failings repeatedly cause them to suffer. Only when confronted with true charitable goodness at the end are they finally shamed into being good. We should learn from Rat Race. Firstly, if a weird billionaire sends you to New Mexico to find $2 million dollars, keep a calm head, think strategically and remember how the bourgeoisie like to exploit the proletariat for fun. And secondly, a capacity for evil lies within us all and to combat this, we need to attend more charity concerts.
It’s hardly Se7en but still, for that inspiring message alone, it’s worth watching the slightly subpar noughties slapstick caper that is Rat Race.