- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

''Rat Race" is a hit-and-miss good time.The chase farce juggles about seven or eight subplots while scurrying from one destination to the next. The far-fetched and cross-country sight gags, including one that uses a radar tower as a prop and seems pretty certain to become a classic, provide more than enough ballast to keep the show playfully aloft. But some cast members get shortchanged, and the pretext grows wearisome whenever a sequence misfires.

Jerry Zucker of the "Airplane," "Top Secret" and "Naked Gun" spoofs demonstrates that it is possible to streamline and improve such wheezing prototypes as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Great Race." Andy Breckman's screenplay appears directly influenced by "Mad World." The starting point is the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where a handful of susceptible guests find themselves selected at random for a treasure hunt.

John Cleese, who looks as if he may have suffered back-to-back misadventures in face-lifting and orthodontia, is cast as a sneak of a hotel manager, Donald Sinclair, who has cooked up the game to amuse high rollers. On the side, he is constantly subjecting the staff to incidental bets, such as endurance tests of curtain rod-dangling by hotel maids.

The unwitting contestants are informed that a prize of $2 million, deposited in a duffel bag in a depot locker, awaits the first one to reach the apocryphal town of Silver City, N.M.

Sooner or later, all the players end up as teams. Whoopi Goldberg as Vera Baker and Lanai Chapman as Merrill Jennings are a mother and a daughter attempting to reconcile after years of estrangement. Seth Green and Vince Vieluf are a moronic brother act, Duane and Blaine Cody. They end up with the most spectacular sight gags.

Jon Lovitz as family man Randy Pear would prefer to make a solo trip to Silver City, but he's obliged to escort Kathy Najimy as spouse Beverly, plus two wisecracking children. An ill-advised side trip turns them into the Bialystock and Bloom entries in the race, entangled with farcical Nazi props and trappings. Breckin Meyer as Nick and Amy Smart as Tracy are the budding romantic team, possibly threatened by the fact that Tracy seems to have psychopathic tendencies.

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Owen Templeton begins as a social leper, a National Football League referee who has become a figure of ridicule by blowing a coin toss on national television. He runs afoul of a resentful cabby played by Paul Rodriguez and ultimately ends up as the fugitive bus driver for a group of Lucy Ricardo imitators, the best sight gag of its absurdly reverential kind since the Flying Elvises of "Honeymoon in Vegas." The transitions in Mr. Gooding's odyssey tend to be gear-wrenchers, but there's an oddly revelatory aspect to his performance as a farceur.

Maybe he's destined to inherit the vintage Jack Lemmon ingredients, which mixed tipsiness with wistfulness, chagrin and frenzy.

Rowan Atkinson is also a solitary starter, an elfin and narcoleptic Italian called Pollini. If you suspect that the role was devised with Roberto Benigni in mind, you're correct. Pollini's obliviousness and harmlessness would appear to make him the ideal choice as eventual prize-winner, but the filmmakers prefer to pull a sanctimonious finale out of their hats. Atkinson acquires a temporary road companion in Wayne Knight as a medical delivery man, who precipitates flagrant abuse of a desperately needed organ.

The ensemble is diverting at worst, and certain brainstorms are too wacky or overwhelming to resist. The Cody Brothers' fabulous encounter with the radar tower at McCarran International Airport may have one disadvantage: It's placed so early in the show that it becomes a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, the Codys themselves come close while running an obstacle course of cows.


Movies / Gary Arnold

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TITLE: "Rat Race"

RATING: PG-13 ("Sexual references, crude humor, partial nudity and language," according to the MPAA; occasional profanity and frequent comic and sexual vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Jerry Zucker. Written by Andy Breckman. Cinematography by Thomas Ackerman.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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