What a weird and wacky time the year 2001 was. Jerry Zucker was known for his formidable comedic qualities, but it was a genre he was shying away from more and more. Ghost more or less cemented his move to the dramatics of Hollywood. Comedic bones are funny things, though, and he surely had an itch worth scratching once the 21st century rolled around. Rat Race is an eventful inevitability. A film that holds within it a tenacity and style close to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but without the perky cameos or an experienced, deeper meaning to it. No need when the ensemble at hand is prepared to degrade themselves, all for the madhouse Zucker creates.
But the madhouse suffers. It’s falling to pieces. You can replace a supporting performance there or a gag here, but the foundation of Rat Race is built on a gamble. From Kathy Bates selling squirrels to Rowan Atkinson yelling “I’m winning, I’m winning” and promptly suffering from extreme narcolepsy, Rat Race has enough within it to win over lighter audiences, but struggles to give them any interest beyond caricature-like moments. Seth Green and Vince Vieluf’s routine is primarily based on vehicular antics and slapstick. It never works as well as it should, not because the punchline isn’t present, but because we spend little time with them. We spend minimal time with the majority of characters found throughout, and it weakens the emotional connection we can make with these pieces of the ensemble.
Rat Race commodifies and mocks those that slow down life in the fast lane. There is something of an issue there, though. Its characters move far faster than we can keep up with. Zucker wishes to keep us in the loop on what they do and why but misses out on the set-up to his many, many punchlines. Exposition is not so much present as overtaking the dialogue. Characters speak in either shouts of terror or exposition. Reminders of what they aim to achieve, rather than gags or punchlines. What few jokes do mark their territory are at the expense of nameless characters shamed for happening to be in the same location. Some jokes, such as the Mach 1 car, are just uncomfortable, rather than humour-filled. But at least Zucker has good intentions in mind.
Rat Race has all the qualities of the Stanley Kramer film, but without the heart to it. An ensemble whose dependency on one another is limited entirely by their fracturing hatred for one another. That hatred is never built upon too often. There are rarely ever smart moments where we can see one character in the background of another arching pathway, and when there are, it is cut away from to catch up with the rest of the characters Zucker very nearly forgets about. He piles his plate high and fails to deliver. Bringing so many characters and cameos to the screen, Rat Race attempts a great deal and comes up short much of the time. Bless it for trying, and for that, we can only cringe and groan in horror.