It may not be a fashionable genre, but I’m a sucker for a cross-country road race; from Genevieve to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run, there’s always fun to be had with a group of misfits taking part in a wacky competition. Jerry Zucker’s forgotten 2001 hit surfaces regularly on streaming, and while not the best example of the genre, it’s a guilty pleasure that does have some genuinely surprising bits of business.
Two names the might pull in the unwary are Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese, two giants of British comedy who were coasting on past glories at this point; ironically, they’re two of the weaker elements here. Cleese plays Donald P Sinclair, the head of a syndicate who bet on everything from the flavours of chocolates in a box to the winners of a car race; they put tokens into Las Vegas slot machines that bestow entry to the race to the lucky winners. Contestants include Garfield 2 star Breckin Meyer, Seth Green, Whoopi Goldberg, Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, Cuba Gooding Jr and Jon Lovitz, whose story certainly feels designed to shock.
Lovitz plays Randy Pear, who takes his whole family on his bid to win the prize. His family don’t know the import of speed, and persuade him to visit a Barbie museum for the kids, only to find that it’s a museum dedicated to war criminal Klaus Barbie. Pear and his family are Jewish, their understandable anti-Nazi sentiment is established early on with some negative comments about Volkswagens, and they end up stealing Hitler’s car to level things up after their mistake. This is a blackly comic strand, and one that actually works; it’s amusing that Pear admonishes road-ragers who attack their vehicle by shouting ‘Stop that, this is Hitler’s car!’
Ok, so there’s some truly terrible jokes in here too, one about mentally ill patients which is worth skipping, and Atkinson’s funny foreigner routine is beneath him, but there’s also plenty of agreeable gags, like Gooding Jr driving a bus full of Lucille Ball look-alikes to a convention. And Rat Race ends on a high with something that would improve any movie; a live performance by Smash Mouth performing their hit song All Star with the entire cast mucking around on-stage. For low investment comedy that hits a few genuine highs, Rat Race isn’t as bad as its lowly reputation suggests.