"Rat Race's" frantic story of a lot of people running after even more money is the most old-fashioned, live-action comedy of the summer, and if you've seen its competition you know that has to be a good thing.
An amusing revival of elaborate chase movies like 1963's "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," "Rat Race's" humor actually goes back further still, to the Crashes, Chases and Screams comedies of the silent era. Though the film has its share of misfires and miscalculations and doesn't completely avoid contemporary crudeness (is there a secret MPAA covenant mandating this kind of stuff?), many of "Rat Race's" gags would look familiar to Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops.
What the silent gang would be impressed with is the scale writer Andy Breckman and director Jerry Zucker (who co-directed "Airplane!" way back when) have to work with. From a punch-out between antagonists clinging to the body of a cow suspended under a hot-air balloon (it's funnier than it sounds) to the antics of an entire busload of Lucille Ball imitators headed for a Lucy convention, this is a film that makes you laugh at things you never thought you'd even so much as see.
"Rat Race's" workable plot is really no more than a trigger device, a bare-bones idea necessary for getting things underway. It starts with eccentric Las Vegas casino magnate Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) and his search for new things for his coterie of compulsive high rollers to bet on.
Sinclair's idea involves the random selection of half a dozen nominally ordinary people, participants alone or with partners in a very special game. Inside a train-station locker in Silver City, N.M., exactly 563 miles distant from Las Vegas, there is a red duffel bag with $2 million in small bills. The first person to get to the bag keeps the money. The only rule is, there are no rules.
Though Sinclair doesn't volunteer the information, he's set up this stunt (which sounds a bit like the premise for NBC's upcoming reality epic "Lost") as something for his gang to wager on. "A horse race with animals who can think and lie and cheat and play dirty," he exults. "It's the gambling experience of a lifetime."
The engagingly drawn contestants break down as follows: Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg), a good-hearted soul who's just been reunited with Merrill Jennings (Lanai Chapman), the hard-driving daughter she gave up for adoption 27 years ago; Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an NFL referee who is in hiding after making "the biggest bonehead call in the history of football"; Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), a ditzy Italian tourist with an uncertain command of English and a tendency toward narcolepsy; Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz), a ne'er-do-well compulsive gambler who's vacationing in Las Vegas with his wife Bev (Kathy Najimy) and their two children; Duane Cody (Seth Green, "Austin Powers"' Scott Evil) and his brother Blaine (Vince Vieluf), a pair of ineptly larcenous brothers further handicapped by Blaine's inability to make himself understood after some do-it-yourself tongue piercing; and Nick Schaffer (Breckin Meyer), a square attorney who always plays by the rules. He starts to get more adventurous, however, after running into an attractive helicopter pilot (Amy Smart) with a fiery temper.
With all these people doing everything they can all at once to be first in Silver City, "Rat Race" has a tendency to get too frenetic. Saving it from itself most of the time are several factors that combine to create smiles, starting with the way the film's humor largely avoids the mean-spiritedness so prevalent elsewhere.
As the cast list testifies, "Rat Race" is rich in excellent comic performers. Even smaller roles are filled by practiced professionals, like Wayne King as a catastrophe-prone ambulance driver, Kathy Bates in an unbilled cameo as the Squirrel Lady, and even attorney Gloria Allred, well cast as herself.
If there is one cast member who deserves a special word it is Atkinson. Best known for British TV series like "Mr. Bean" and "Blackadder" and with a memorable part as the minister in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," Atkinson, somehow managing to be simultaneously delicate and broad, can do things with his face that shouldn't be legal. His delighted and delightful Mr. Pollini is a little taste of comic genius.
Also in "Rat Race's" favor is that its jokes are often part of elaborately worked-out comic schemes that play off unexpectedly down the road. That computer-generated cow, for instance, turns up when you least expect it, though a note on the closing credits should calm the unwary: "Only actors," it reads, "were harmed in the making of this film."
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual references, crude humor, partial nudity and language. Times guidelines: relatively mild by today's standards, though it does have its share of off-color jokes.
Rowan Atkinson: Enrico Pollini
John Cleese: Donald Sinclair
Whoopi Goldberg: Vera Baker
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Owen Templeton
Seth Green: Duane Cody
Jon Lovitz: Randy Pear
Breckin Meyer: Nick Schaffer
Amy Smart: Tracy Faucet
In association with Fireworks Pictures, an Alphaville/Zucker production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jerry Zucker. Producers Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker, Sean Daniel. Executive producers Richard Vane, James Jacks. Screenplay Andy Breckman. Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman. Editor Tom Lewis. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music John Powell. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art directors Seth Reed, Doug Byggdin. Set decorators Larry Dias, Carol Lavalee, Renee Baril . Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
In general release.