Donald P. Sinclair has placed six separate gold coins in different slot machines in his casino. The lucky six who find these coins discover an opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to own $2 million. Locked up in a locker in New Mexico, these six contestants must now race each other, to be the first to the cash. There are no rules in place and everything that could possibly happen, does. Whilst, behind the scenes, Sinclair's associates are placing their bets. Written by
I haven't seen "It's a Mad ... etc. World" (is it four Mads or five? I can never remember), so it's not fair to make comparisons - but the changes I know about sound as though they're improvements. The sum of money in the original film was $350 000; this time it's $2 million, which (adjusting for inflation) is considerably less. In the original the money was a fifteen-year-old buried treasure; here, it's just money. An eccentric squillionaire has put it in a locker without explanation. WE get an explanation, of sorts, but the racers do not - so there is no romance attached to the prize, which means that all of their actions are PURE expressions of greed. (John Cleese is the squillionaire, and while his cameo in "The World Is Not Enough" proved that he could, with the right material, fail to be funny, he and his coterie of wealthy compulsive gamblers are hilarious here. It's good counterpoint humour, since they're actually the least greedy, most disinterested people involved in the chase.)
A criticism levelled at the original was that innocent, well-meaning bystanders got hurt - that it was meant to be a joke when their property was destroyed, but the joke wasn't funny. "Rat Race" avoids being open to the same charge by making the world an even more venal one. The ambulance-chasing lawyer, the live organ courier, the quirky roadside squirrel-seller, the key-cutter, the garage mechanic, the neo-Nazis, the vengeful taxi driver ... all these people have less attractive personalities than any of the racers. Only a few of them are punished, but among them are the only outsiders to be punished at all. (With the exception, I'll admit, of people we never see, like the anonymous owners of cars that are run over in the parking lot.)
Whoopi Goldberg plays it straight, which suits her. I can't fault the acting anywhere, but I do wish that Rowan Atkinson hadn't been cast as the loopy, dim-witted Italian (I can't see this picture playing in Italy at all). To be sure, he brings the role off, and he's the only person who could have done so - but he would have been funnier if he'd been allowed to be more intelligent, to have a little more rat cunning hiding beneath the surface. (For half a second, he DOES exhibit cunning: it's by far his funniest moment.)
All scenes before the race is announced fall flat. Timing and motivation just weren't there, and I even wondered afterwards if Zucker had handed his establishing scenes to an ungifted underling. But I don't want to carp at a funny film by saying it could have been funnier. Things pick up considerably as soon as John Cleese outlines the central premise; from then on the film is never less than inventive, and even if (for some reason) you don't find it funny, you must admit that those involved at least had the right IDEA about comedy.
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