Kierkegaard said it first: ”Farting is easy. Comedy is hard.” This might explain not only why flatulence plays so loud a role in so many new bowel movies promising hilarity, but also why recent offerings as varied as ”Freddy Got Fingered,” ”What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, ”Saving Silverman,” ”Lucky Numbers,” and ”Town & Country” have been stinkers. Gaseous emissions, after all, are universal. But what’s funny is a matter of talent, timing, and changing cultural moods.
It’s damn difficult creating a low-methane, general-audience pleasure that unfolds with the kind of comic inevitability that inspires giggles. (The last that comes to mind: ”Meet the Parents.”) And it’s even harder selling an ensemble comedy not built on the brand-name (and presold-on-TV) performance stylings of a particular entertainer, which may be why studios would rather bet, and often lose, on feature-length skits starring cast members of ”SNL.”
When you go to un film de Adam Sandler?or Woody Allen, for that matter?at least you know what you’re in for. When you go to Rat Race, on the other hand — and I hope you will, undeterred by the movie’s wan and unintelligible promotional campaign — you’re signing on for a race, all right, but one without road signs.
This rowdy, bouncy, and acceleratingly funny movie is of a genre we haven’t seen for a while: It’s a caper, giddy with preposterousness, in which a circus’ worth of well-known comic performers with big-tent personalities work as a motley team, relaying the shtick to one another like a baton. And the all-stops-out energy is all in the service of a nutty plot involving the competitive pursuit of $2 million, crammed in a duffel bag stashed in a train-station locker: Greedy, scheming, hamster-wheel-driven winner takes all.
The last time we saw an all-star variety act of this stripe was back in 1963, when Stanley Kramer stocked ”It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with Borscht-Belt-fed and vaudeville- seasoned comics like Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Phil Silvers, and Mad magazine was young. And the last time this kind of giant domino-stacked cavalcade of missteps was popular, back in the early 1990s, the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry, along with their creative partner Jim Abrahams, were wielding their ”Naked Guns,” and Mad was middle-aged.
Well, ”Rat Race” combines the story architecture of Kramer’s ”Mad World,” the timing cues and extended punchline preferences of Jerry Zucker as director, and — most crucial of all — a very hip, up-to-date script by ”SNL” writer and former ”Late Night With David Letterman” staffer Andy Breckman. It’s a great old idea made young. Stanley Kramer purists may hate it. What can I say, it made me laugh.
Once you let yourself go — bopping along to the movie’s own beat, open to the possibility that Cuba Gooding Jr. could play a guy who hijacks a bus full of Lucille Ball look-alikes, or that Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy could steal Adolph Hitler’s car from a desert museum (”That Eva Braun had style”!), all of them on a chase from Las Vegas to Silver City, N.M., masterminded by John Cleese as an eccentric casino owner who bets on absolutely everything — well, once you loosen your shorts and quit looking for Farrelly brothers-style payoffs, this thing’s a gas.
The cast also includes Rowan Atkinson as a narcoleptic Italian contestant and Wayne Knight as an ambulance driver, Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman as a mother-daughter team (who at one point appropriate supersonic land transport), Seth Green and newcomer Vince Vieluf as rule-breaking brothers (who at one point drive a stolen car up an airport control tower), and Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart as junior professionals (who at one point total a helicopter). The mishaps include the accidental boarding of a bus filled with mentally challenged adult campers, the interruption of a monster-truck rally, the crashing of a Smash Mouth performance, and a memorable, if brief, visit with Kathy Bates as a squirrel fancier who turns out to be even more of a menace than the wacko she played in ”Misery.”
The easygoing silliness with which this late-summer movie surprise scuttles from mayhem to mayhem and the verve with which the cast throws itself into the fray are so cheering and liberating, in this summer of forced laughs and action flops, that you may not want to give ”Rat Race” a second thought beyond buying a ticket and buying an ice cream cone on the way home. If you’re in the mood for pensées, though, chew on this: No grub-swallowing, Playboy-posing, shoe-endorsing participant on ”Survivor,” no fortune-hunting, free-will applicant for ”Fear Factor,” ”Temptation Island,” ”Weakest Link,” or any reality and/or game show past, present, or future looks any less craven than the human rats subjected to ludicrous experiments in this comedy lab. And here, at least, the world is funny on purpose.