There are no winners in “Rat Race,” only a lineup of comic actors running on empty long before the dust settles. The idea of reviving the madcap-pursuit-of-cash formula of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is riddled with peril: It’s close to a fool’s errand to replicate the inimitable essences of Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Edie Adams, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn and Phil Silvers. That Tracy and Co. couldn’t make their chase comedy work is a clear warning sign, but “Rat Race” speeds along anyway, until it literally goes right over the cliff. With summer comedies stuck in a traffic jam, this one appears destined to pick up only the most undemanding riders.
Rooney’s and Hackett’s intended destination in “Mad World” was Vegas — but in ’62, when the Rat Pack still ruled. “Rat Race” begins in Vegas — but in 2001, when ersatz hotels posing as adventurelands rule.
In the Venetian Hotel, attorney Nick (Breckin Meyer) tries not to be tempted by Sin City’s allures. NFL ref Owen (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is reminded of how he flubbed a coin toss. Brothers Duane (Seth Green) and Blaine (Vince Vieluf) dabble in petty crimes. Vera (Whoopi Goldberg) successfully reunites with her aggressively ambitious daughter, Merrill (Lanai Chapman). Randy (Jon Lovitz) has supposedly brought wife Bev (Kathy Najimy) and children to Vegas to see David Copperfield, but he secretly wants to gamble. Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson) is an Italian with narcolepsy.
All of them, passing through the hotel’s slot zone, take a try at the one-armed bandits, and all win a gold coin imprinted with an invite to a reception being held by the hotel’s owner, Donald Sinclair (John Cleese), a man whose pocketbook is only slightly larger than his gleaming white-capped teeth.
Cleese sprinkles a dash of eccentricity on this functional opening as he surprises the group of strangers with an offer: They all have a one-in-six chance of being the first to open a locker at a Silver City, N.M., train station and claim a bag containing $2 million. The only rule, Sinclair explains, is that there are no rules, and the clock starts now.
Unfortunately, director Jerry Zucker’s sense of comic timing is missing. Maybe it’s the crowd of Oscar winners and various stars vying for time, or perhaps it’s Zucker’s relatively long absence from the broad comedy he made his own in the era of “Airplane!,” but from the start, few scenes or moments actually deliver the intended laugh.
And when the chase gets going, it’s a pretty sad spectacle of overwrought farce and, even worse, some half-baked attempts to cash in on the already fading gross-out comedy trend.
Greed begets stupidity, so a ridiculous plot by Duane and Blaine to destroy the Vegas airport’s radar system (thus forcing the competish into cars) sets the painfully blunt tone for the next hour-plus of archly overcooked action scenes. At first, taxi driver Gus (Paul Rodriguez) doesn’t recognize Owen as the ref who caused him to lose a football bet, but when he does, he leaves Owen stranded in the desert. Vera and Merrill speed off, but are sent off course and over a cliff by a frustrated owner of a roadside stand selling squirrels (Kathy Bates, in pic’s only decent cameo).
Randy tells Bev that he’s racing off to a job opportunity, but, on a stopover at the Barbie Museum (dedicated to Klaus Barbie, not the doll), steals Hitler’s Mercedes limo. Enrico snatches a ride with Zack (Wayne Knight), transporting a heart to Texas.
All of these are rough variations on similar individual sections of “Mad World,” including the obligatory airborne sequence provided by Nick, who, after hesitating about the whole venture, recruits Tracy (Amy Smart), a pilot whose helicopter doesn’t need the airport radar. Ultimately, the only guarantee in this movie is that things will get comedically worse.
As if it weren’t already in serious trouble, the production reps the problems of trying to duplicate the American Southwest in predominantly Canadian locations, and after the realistic depiction of Vegas, pic seems to lose all sense of place. Though most of the race is set in Arizona, exteriors never come close to mimicking that state’s unique landscapes (not even a saguaro cactus in sight). Most implausible of all is the finale, apparently set somewhere outside of the already remote Silver City, where pop group Smashmouth stages a giant “Feed the Earth” benefit concert attended by tens of thousands.
Nobody in the cast with a lot to do emerges unscathed, which makes Cleese and Najimy the fortunate ones. Meyer, playing the straight man, at least doesn’t have to act too ridiculous, except when he’s trapped with the unfunny Smart. Rowan Atkinson fans will have to wait until the comic’s next mad scheme, since this one is severely miscalculated. Gooding and Green spend most of their time screaming, while Lovitz and Goldberg look distinctly uncomfortable.
Beyond the location snafus, production is a good-looking venture, punctuated with some impressive shots of transports in various states of speed and/or total collapse. John Powell’s score, full of busy music, is unfortunately one of his least inspired.