By the early 1960s, the director Stanley Kramer had decided it was time he made something a little less serious. He had built his reputation in Hollywood on capital-D dramas that tackled social issues head on, from racism in The Defiant Ones to the debate over creationism versus evolution in Inherit the Wind. His first crack at comedy resulted in 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, an epic road movie starring a cast of just about every living comedy star from Buddy Hackett to Buster Keaton. Overstuffed by design, the three-hour movie frantically cuts back and forth between its sprawling cast members as they race each other across the country in pursuit of a dead man’s buried stash of $350,000. The movie was nominated for six Oscars and holds a spot in the pantheon of classic farces. In fact, it’s the type of movie that probably deserves its own “Recommends” column, but unfortunately it has neither the Baha Men nor Smash Mouth on its soundtrack, so instead we’re here to talk about 2001’s Rat Race.
Released a little over 20 years ago to unremarkable box-office returns and middling reviews, Rat Race is a quasi remake of Mad, Mad World that achieves an unholy fusion between that film and the kind of early-aughts studio comedy that invariably featured a needle drop of “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Directed by Jerry Zucker (of ZAZ fame) with a script by Monk creator Andy Breckman, the movie opens with an animated title sequence that mimics the one from Mad, Mad World and shows off a cast that could have been assembled only in 2001, including Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, and Cuba Gooding Jr. This motley crew of strangers descends for one reason or another on Las Vegas, where they each make the mistake of visiting a casino owned by billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese), who randomly selects them to race each other for $2 million stashed in a storage locker in New Mexico. Unbeknownst to them, Sinclair has secretly organized the race to entertain a cabal of billionaire gamblers who watch the titular rats tear each other apart over a measly $2 million while the real money changes hands behind the scenes.
A more acidic version of the movie might’ve used that premise to excoriate the ruling class, but Rat Race is mostly content to frame its billionaire characters as mustache-twirling puppet masters before moving on to the high jinks. Much like Mad, Mad World, Rat Race hits its stride during the set pieces, which are built from such random components they could only have been conceived by the South Park manatees. In one especially Mad Libs–ian vignette, Gooding’s character (his name is Owen, but you can practically see the screenwriter shrugging when he came up with that one) hijacks a tour bus full of Lucille Ball cosplayers en route to an I Love Lucy convention. Naturally, one of them spills soap into the bus’s toilet, filling the bus with a rising tide of suds as Owen tries to ignore the screaming Lucys and keep the bus moving. Meanwhile, the only Jewish family in the race (Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, and two kids played by Brody Smith and Jillian Marie Hubert) makes a pit stop at a Barbie museum, not realizing it’s a shrine to the Nazi Klaus Barbie. They wind up escaping from the horde of neo-Nazis, of course, by stealing Hitler’s car, which they can’t help but admit is beautifully designed. “I mean, look at this mahogany! You just don’t see that anymore, you know?”
In the most effective stretches of Rat Race’s running time, these set pieces crescendo one after another, delivering an overdose of Looney Tunes–adjacent mayhem in each parallel story line. That grab-bag quality has earned the movie its spot in the unofficial canon of cable classics — flip the channel to it at any moment, and you might find Rowan Atkinson fumbling a literal human heart or Kathy Bates, in an uncredited appearance, selling squirrels on the side of a freeway and attempting to murder passersby who refuse to buy one. (“You should have bought a squirrel.”)
This being a quasi remake of a Kramer movie, there’s a lesson buried amid the chaos on the corrosive nature of greed and on capitalism’s ability to reduce human beings to frenzied animals. Toward the end in particular, Rat Race can’t help but underline the “money isn’t everything” aspect of its story. But this is also a movie in which Lovitz’s character forces his daughter to poop out of the window of a moving car. Multitudes!
To no one’s surprise, the passage of time has not revealed Rat Race to be an infallible, timeless piece of art. Instead, it embodies the good, the bad, and the incomprehensible of early-aughts pop culture. As with so many comedies from its era, the movie features not one but two unfunny gender-confusion gags, and Gooding’s presence can’t help but call to mind the accusations that would later be lodged against him. Still, Rat Race offers a reminder of a not-so-distant past when Goldberg regularly starred in movies and studios churned out mid-budget comedies built around set pieces. At the very least, it provides a glimpse into the brief window of time when a movie could resolve its conflict with a cast sing-along of “All Star.”
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