It's a little strange how many people still think of Jerry Zucker as The Airplane Guy. Seems like Zucker just can't get away from being typecast as the clown who, along with his brother David, ushered in what seemed like a whole new breed of gleefully nonsensical filmmaking with the original Airplane movies — not to mention the prototypal Kentucky Fried Movie and their first cousins, the Naked Gun movies. Love 'em or hate 'em, those movies made quite a dent in the popular culture, spitting out jokes at an unprecedented rate and blithely mixing occasionally clever satire with the most blatantly idiotic humor and sexual innuendo imaginable. We can trace the roots of the Airplane flicks from the Marx Brothers to Mad Magazine, but perhaps even more significantly, we can trace that lineage forward as well.
The chord Zucker's films struck with moviegoers proved to be a shot in the arm for Hollywood comedies over the past few decades. With their vaguely absurdist tendencies and willingness to play fast and loose with story logic or anything resembling cause and effect, Zucker's comedies set the stage and fit in perfectly with the brand of pomo filmmaking that came to be identified with Generations X, Y and Whatever. Likewise, it's doubtful that without the vaguely raunchy tendencies of those Zucker comedies we would have eventually arrived at a place where American Pie and the Farrelly Brothers were possible. For better or worse.
What we tend to forget about Jerry Zucker, however, is that this is also the person who directed that obscenely popular Harlequin romance dressed up as a tale of supernatural border crossings, Ghost. It may also have slipped our minds that Zucker's resume includes producer credits on some of the more unequivocally Capital-S Sensitive dramas to have emerged from Hollywood over the past decade — films such as the Keanu Reeves weeper A Walk in the Clouds and My Life with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. Clearly, Jerry Zucker is a man who wears many hats, and not all of them have funny ears attached or come with weird little propellers on top.
Zucker's Rat Race is being billed as a return to comedic form for the director, a claim that is at least partially true. Rat Race is a comedy, no doubt about that, but it's been significantly toned down and homogenized to the point where it bears very little resemblance to the director's signature gag fests. All but gone are the rapid-fire, ping-ponging non sequiturs and periodic ruptures where the characters step outside of the movie to wink at the audience.
A much more conventional sort of comedy than anything Zucker has previously done, Rat Race actually belongs to a whole other comedic subgenre, the madcap chase movie. Basically, Rat Race appears to be an uncredited remake of Stanely Kramer's 1963 Cinerama blowout It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Less charitable viewers may point to Cannonball Run I and II as points of reference.
As in Mad, Mad World, Rat Race is about (as much as it's "about" anything) an ensemble of wacky, mismatched characters frantically racing against time and against each other to get their hands on a huge stash of cash that's been deposited in a prearranged spot. Both movies are essentially one-damn-thing-after-another scenarios made up of a string of visual gags and skits, and both movies feature a gaggle of mostly past-their-prime celebrity-comedians in both the main roles and cameos. The '63 prototype had Milton Berle, Terry-Thomas, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney and the god-like Jonathan Winters, among others. Rat Race replaces them with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, Wayne Knight, Paul Rodriguez, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a few other once-famous faces you may be hard pressed to recognize.
The big innovation in Rat Race is that in the middle of all its Capital-Z Zaniness there is a romance, sort of, between two fresh-faced youngsters. The female is played by Amy Smart (Varsity Blues, Road Trip), whose waifish, wide-set and freckled features sometimes seem to resemble a more attractive, female version of Alfred E. Neuman. The male romantic lead is played by Breckin Meyer (Can't Hardly Wait, Road Trip), who may just be Hollywood's most boring leading man since Steve Guttenberg. In Rat Race, Meyer actually seems to be doing a variation on the persona Dick Shawn took on in Mad, Mad World, but Shawn at least kept his tanned and square-jawed character interesting by making us aware that he was, at root, a doofus.
So is Rat Race a good movie? No, not really. It is, however, a slightly better one than It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (which, for all its virtues, drags terribly at three hours long; Rat Race, to its great credit, is significantly shorter). On top of that, Rat Race is surprisingly funny, in fits and starts, if you're able to just take it for what it is and turn off pretty much all portions of your brain but the reptilian core. Screenwriter Andy Breckman has penned some very funny and outrageous stuff for The Late Show with David Letterman and Comedy Central's TV Funhouse, as well as being responsible for some utter tripe for the big screen like I.Q. and Sgt. Bilko. Rat Race demonstrates both of the writer's dueling sensibilities at work: Most of the humor is purely physical and, frankly, pretty low, but there are at least a half-dozen moments that had us rolling in the proverbial aisles. The Squirrel Lady sequence is alone almost worth the price of admission.
Much like what it puts its characters through, Rat Race gets crazier and more frenetic as it approaches the finish line. The movie starts out slow but picks up speed steadily, placing its characters into ever more precarious and bizarre situations as they scramble along, jockeying for position like contestants on a Survivor gag reel. By the midpoint, Gooding Jr.'s character (having just emerged from a stint wandering around the desert buck naked) is playing driver for a busload of Lucy Ricardo lookalikes who wail in unison; Atkinson (who almost steals the show here) and Knight are chasing after a pesky dog with a valuable human organ in its mouth; and Lovitz and his suburban family are fighting off a gang of dykes on bikes while cruising down the highway in a spiffy Mercedes Benz stolen from Adolf Hitler.
It just gets crazier from there. While more traditionally structured and paced than any of the Airplane or Naked Gun movies, Rat Race's approach is similar in that, by the last half-hour or so, the movie's relentless piling on of gags begins to take on the form of an assault. The jokes fly thick and fast, some of it works, some of it doesn't — and the result is somewhat more draining than it is satisfying.
It would all probably sit a whole lot better if Rat Race managed to let well enough alone and at least carried through with its better, more anarchistic impulses. It doesn't. How it all ends shouldn't really remotely matter in a project this preposterous, but Rat Race's anything-but-grand finale disappoints even according to those undemanding guidelines. When push comes to shove, the movie reverts to form and cops out big time with a series of bland, feel-good mini-finales, becoming, beyond everything else, the film that simply refused to say goodbye. It's an incredibly stupid way to finish up what in many ways is a half-decent little comedy, sending us on our way, off into the night with an ugly, all-too familiar taste in our mouths and increasingly fond memories of Cannonball Run.