Rat Race
dir. Jerry Zucker
Opens Fri Aug 17 at various theaters.

The ensemble chase comedy: a concept that was exhausted by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, that experienced chest pains in Cannonball Run I and II, and that saw its heart explode in Million Dollar Mystery (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for a brand-name garbage bag). These and others were the cobblestones in the road that arrives at Rat Race, which at this point should not be considered an actual chase comedy but a clone, brought to you by a movie industry so short on ideas that it's now peddling third-generation photocopies of itself to an audience raised on replicas (apologies to D. C. Berman).

The setup involves your typical no-holds-barred dash for cash, with barely a twist: John Cleese is an eccentric billionaire casino owner who has arranged a human "rat race" as the ultimate action for his high-rolling clientele. The unwitting participants scramble to be the first to reach the $2 million that's sitting in a locker in Silver City, New Mexico, while Cleese and his assistant (SCTV's Dave Thomas) monitor their progress and arrange a series of ridiculous side bets to pass the time.

When I interviewed him, producer/director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and BASEketball fame) said he didn't intend to recreate the schticky set pieces of his chase-movie ancestors. Shrewd, since the cast includes few actual comedians. Instead, Rat Race relies on Andy Breckman's fairly humorous weirdo script for situational laughs, like a family crashing a WWII veterans' rally in Hitler's car, a stolen rocket car, and a trip on the short bus. The over-the-top boozing, womanizing, and cheating scenes of past productions--a.k.a the "funny" parts--have been scrubbed clean, leaving only some monster trucks, a helicopter, a hot-air balloon, and two cameos by attorney Gloria Allred. If forced to see Rat Race (on a long flight, perhaps), viewers are advised to follow Zucker's recommendation: "Just put your brain under your seat and enjoy." Easy for him to say.

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