Movies with ensemble casts are easy and hard to review. These two extremes work in concert. Because they have so many characters, they seldom have a main character on which to center your focus. Thus, describing the plot becomes streamlined. Put differently, they are shorter. That is the easy part. The hard part is filling out a description that does them justice. It is made harder when it is a comedy because talking about a joke is significantly less funny than hearing or seeing it. This describes Rat Race (2001) as precisely as possible. A group of people are going after a significant amount of money. The laughter comes in seeing the lengths to which they will go in order to obtain those riches. For example, disgraced football referee Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding Jr.) at one point in the title sprint takes over a bus full of people dressed up as Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) from I Love Lucy (1951-1957). Painting this scene for you would be laborious, and the hijinks that follow are not the main thrust of the film. Rather, the best way to describe Rat Race are little vignettes that tell the story of a set of strangers getting to the finish line, and they each have a nice little arc by the end.
The place where the Rat Race begins is in Las Vegas, more specifically in the hotel and casino of eccentric billionaire Donald P. Sinclair (John Cleese). The movie gives a short introduction to the eight random visitors that are going to be making up the quest for the money. I am not going to get into each of them because that would be tedious. Instead, they will be discussed as needed. It should also be noted that not all of these people are alone. Again, their companions will be talked about when necessary. They are chosen because they each play a slot machine, and they win one small, gold coin. When it is redeemed, per the instructions on it they are ushered into a suite at the top of the hotel. This is where they finally meet Mr. Sinclair. His first pitch to them is that there is a meteorite the size of North Carolina that is going to wipe out all life on the planet. He has built a bunker under the hotel and they have been picked to repopulate the planet once the devastation is over. It is all a joke, and I have to confess to chuckling a little at that one. The real reason they are all there is because Mr. Sinclair has placed a bag with $2 million dollars in it in a locker at the train station in Silver City, New Mexico. The first person to get to it wins. And . . . go! Except, nobody goes because none of them believe it at first. They each get a key to open the locker, and as they head towards the elevator, they each claim they are not going to go for it. Yet, when down-on-his-luck husband and father of two Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz) tries nonchalantly to say that he is going to use the stairs instead of the lagging elevator, it triggers a mad dash to be the first to make it out of the hotel. Ironically, the person who makes the most progress in the initial stage is the simpleton, Italian tourist Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson). His progress is halted in the lobby, though, because he is a narcoleptic. When his sleep condition brings him to a halt, we see that Mr. Sinclair is hosting a group of gamblers who make wagers on nearly every aspect of the journey as their movements are monitored. The obvious choice for all of them is to get to New Mexico by plane, but the dimwitted brother duo of Blaine (Vince Vieluf) and Duane Cody (Seth Green) screw that up by destroying the airport radar with their car. That is not a joke, though it is meant to be funny. When news of the indefinite flight postponement reaches Chicago lawyer Nicholas “Nick” Schaffer (Breckin Meyer), he remembers the female pilot he had struck up a conversation with earlier. Her name is Tracy Faucet (Amy Smart) and the fact that she can fly helicopters and thus circumvent the plane groundings stirs him to action instead of seeing the race as a farce. I suppose I should add that eventually Enrico awakens and hitches a ride with organ donor transporter Zack Mallozzi (Wayne Knight), thus getting all our principal characters on the road. While the hilarity ensues with their desperation to reach the case, Mr. Sinclair and his people come up with a number of somewhat funny side-bets. These need not be enumerated either, save for one. Mr. Sinclair has his assistant, Harold Grisham (Dave Thomas), solicit a prostitute, Vicki (Brandi Ledford). The wager is the price she will charge for his outrageous proposal. Actually, it is nothing too explicit as these things go, but it does involve Pepto-Bismol. This is important because all the racers essentially get to the locker at the same time only to find it empty. That is because it has been emptied by Vicki, who had been brought to that location by Harold. As they attempt to make off with the money, they are chased by the others. While they manage to get the bag, they end up on the stage of a benefit concert being put on by Smash Mouth. With the spotlight on them, they donate their winnings to the “Feed the World,” charity. This is also when Mr. Sinclair shows up, and Nick shifts the attention to the wealthy hotelier and his high rollers, getting them to match donations. Then our racers crowd surf off into the night.
There is a lot that I left out in describing Rat Race, and it is not only the details of each individual’s part of the trek. There are also a few outdated jokes in there, including when daughter and mother, respectively, Merrill Jennings (Lanei Chapman) and Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg), get on a bus for people with special needs. It is relatively tame compared to other films, but it is never good to make light of such people. What should be appreciated from a Catholic point of view is the way everyone comes to their senses at the end. The film is aptly named for the mad pursuit of riches turns everyone into animals, except for Enrico. Granted, he is going after the money, but his simpleton ways keep him sane. Still, what tops it off are the children that come forward to thank the racers for their donations. One of them says that they are like the Twelve Disciples, which warms my Catholic heart. Their chaperon says “God Bless you” for their charity. What makes this sequence remarkable from a Faith perspective is the effect it has on the racers. When they are put on the spot, they do not immediately realize that they are giving away the cash they had traveled so hard to obtain. They only reluctantly do so when Smash Mouth’s front man excitedly thanks them for their generosity that they realize what they are being called on to do. They are not happy until the young ones tell them things like their gesture has restored their faith in the goodness of people. This is God’s love at work, whether or not the racers would acknowledge it. Since they do not, it falls to me.
Rat Race is still mildly funny despite some of the jokes no longer landing. Still, I cannot help but think that some of the lengths that they go to should land them in jail. There is a lot of grand theft auto, not the video game, yet none of them are arrested. Finally, is not damaging a radar at an airport considered an act of terrorism? Maybe they all went to Confession?