The obvious model here is Stanley Kramer's legendary "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," which "Rat Race" emulates in both its tone and its amusing array of cameos. At 112 minutes, it's substantially shorter than Kramer's three-hour comic opus but still a tad on the long side: If there's a flaw to "Rat Race," it is that it overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes, decelerating into a somewhat pat conclusion when it should be accelerating to new extremes.
Nonetheless, what has been packed into the film is more than acceptably funny, thanks to the razor-sharp timing of director Jerry Zucker--tackling his first comedy since 1986's "Ruthless People"--and writer Andy Breckman, whose veteran experience as a sketch writer for David Letterman and "Saturday Night Live" finds an ideal outlet with this type of material.
The second film in as many weeks (after "Rush Hour 2") to use Las Vegas as a major backdrop, "Rat Race" brings together a diverse group of smalltime gamblers, selected at random by an eccentric casino owner (John Cleese) to engage in a simple quest for wealth. Each participant is given a key to a locker at a New Mexico train station. Whoever makes it there first gets to keep the $2 million that's sitting inside. And that's it.
Naturally, any such race is only as enjoyable as the participants are colorful, and Breckman has written some brilliant ones: a conservative attorney (Breckin Meyer) who hooks up with a fetching female helicopter pilot (Amy Smart); a vacationing nebbish (Jon Lovitz) stuck with his wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids in tow; a con man (Seth Green) and his bumbling brother (Vince Vieluf); a disgraced NFL referee (Cuba Gooding Jr.); a recently reunited mother and long-lost daughter (Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman); and, best of all, a narcoleptic Italian nerd (Rowan Atkinson).
The insanity that follows is almost impossible to describe--a twisted stream of consciousness in which logic and rationality are completely disregarded. Not all audiences will be willing to so wholly suspend their better judgment, but those able to get with that simple philosophy have a truly good time in store. And while a handful of the bits come close to going too far, none ever really crosses a line from which it can't acceptably recover.
Atkinson's Italian variation on Mr. Bean is one of the film's major delights, as is an astonishingly funny episode in which Lovitz and Najimy have an unexpected run-in with Nazis. The animated opening title sequence is also a dazzler.
With so many balls in the air, it's forgivable if the film occasionally lets one drop or fails to juggle them all with equal aplomb. By present-day standards, a picture like "Rat Race" is a major comedic risk, a break in formula in a town where formula is treated like religion. It's the film's ultimate return to formula, in fact, that is by far its weakest quality. Fortunately, "Rat Race's" strengths so far outweigh those weaknesses that no one should care all that much. Laughs this big come far too rarely to be taken for granted. Starring Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, Kathy Najimy, Lanai Chapman, Vince Vieluf, Wayne Knight, Paul Rodriguez and Dave Thomas. Directed by Jerry Zucker. Written by Andy Breckman. Produced by Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker and Sean Daniel. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor, partial nudity and language. Running time: 112 min