Sometimes comedic talent and hilarious slapstick just aren't enough to make a great film, and "Rat Race" proves that more than any other movie this year. Despite its cavalcade of stars and great visual gags, the Jerry Zucker remake of the 1963 classic "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" can neither compete with the original nor sustain its believability.
A devilishly witty John Cleese, in his juiciest role since "A Fish Called Wanda," plays Donald Sinclair, an eccentric billionaire out to create the perfect bet for his Las Vegas casino clients. He picks six complete strangers and challenges them to race hundreds of miles through the desert -- by car, by plane or by any bizarre means necessary to be the first to reach a locker filled with $2 million. The winner keeps the cash, and the casino guests get to bet on the "rat" of their choice. And it is quite a collection of rats.
The slightly askew Jon Lovitz and the wickedly funny Rowan Atkinson, as a narcoleptic Italian, upstage the rest of the cast -- not a small accomplishment considering the likes of Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Seth Green and Wayne Knight. Only Cuba Gooding Jr. holds his own, particularly when -- with no other means of transport at his disposal -- he hijacks a bus filled with Lucille Ball look-alikes on their way to an "I Love Lucy" convention.
Despite the laughs and a script that moves briskly from one joke to the next, the actors (all talented in their own right) don't work together as a team to create a compelling story. We tolerate all the lunacy and bizarre situations that an old-fashioned chase movie demands; but, above all, this is a contest, and we must believe the characters.
Director Zucker and writer Andy Breckman depart considerably from the Stanley Kramer classic. And that is to their credit, as this cast could not hope to compete with the likes of Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.
There are similarities, but only those thoroughly familiar with the 1963 version will realize that Seth Green and Vince Vieluf play the Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney roles or that Rowan Atkinson fills the shoes of Terry Thomas.
Yet the blame for the movie's failings falls not on the actors but on the director and writer. Apart from a boring Goldberg, the cast members give the film all they have. This movie is what you get when you ask a writer most famous for "Saturday Night Live" skits to duplicate the work of William Rose ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner").
This one's a renter, if only for Lovitz' hilarious Nazi parody. But while you're waiting for it to come out on video -- it'll be a short wait -- pick up a copy of the Kramer original for a look at the real kings of comedy.