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Rat Race Is A Criminally Underrated Comedy

The term "rat race" usually carries a tremendously negative connotation. According to the Britannica Dictionary, the term is "the unpleasant life of people who have jobs that require them to work very hard to compete with others for money, power, status, etc." Usually used for the daily grind of waking up, going to work, and repeating the process, many people don't get warm and fuzzy feelings when describing the communal experience of what is known as the rat race.

That is unless the topic of discussion is the 2001 film "Rat Race," though there is some truth to the previously mentioned definition of this comedy movie. Featuring a forgotten star-studded comedy cast like Jon Lovitz, Wayne Knight, John Cleese, Seth Green, Amy Smart, Whoopi Goldberg, Breckin Meyer, Kathy Najimy, Rowan Atkinson, Dave Thomas, and Cuba Gooding Jr., "Rat Race" is directed by Jerry Zucker. For those unfamiliar with the name, Zucker is a versatile director that has brought audiences "Police Squad!," "Airplane!" and "Ghost," among several other endeavors. Zucker spoke about how he came to direct "Rat Race" with the Morning Call in 2001 and said, "I wasn't looking for a comedy, exactly. What happened was that Paramount was nice enough to send me a copy of Andy Breckman's screenplay, and I thought it was the funniest script I had ever read, including the ones I'd written."

Rat Race is about a contest that is started by a group of wealthy gamblers

The premise of "Rat Race" is quite simple — a wealthy individual known as Donald P. Sinclair (John Cleese) and his fellow rich cronies decide to have a little contest involving some unwitting contestants. Sinclair is an erratic and powerful Las Vegas gambler and billionaire. He and his friends decide to recruit a very diverse group of people to compete for a prize — two million dollars. However, this prize isn't easy to get, as it is located over 500 miles from Las Vegas in a Silver City, New Mexico, train station locker. The contest revolves around people racing to the location, with Sinclair and his buddies placing bets on who will win while also betting on the most inane events in and around this "Rat Race" contest.

The people recruited for this absurd competition for the amusement of the rich and powerful are often groups or pairs – the attorney Nick (Breckin Meyer) and the pilot Tracy (Amy Smart), the slightly dimwitted brothers Duane (Seth Green) and Blaine (Vince Vieluf), the estranged daughter and mother Merrill (Lanei Chapman) and Vera (Whoopi Goldberg), and a tourist family led by Randy (Jon Lovitz) and Beverly (Kathy Najimy). However, not all were with somebody else, and solo runners in "Rat Race" are the former professional referee Owen (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and the narcoleptic Italian Enrico Pollini (Rowan Atkinson).

Rat Race features tons of slapstick comedy and a Smash Mouth song

Once "Rat Race" gets cooking, the previously mentioned competitors are tossed into their self-contained misadventures that all share a common end goal. Nick and Tracy harass an ex-lover, Duane and Blaine abscond with a hot air balloon and monster truck, Merill and Vera steal a rocket car that leaves them stranded in the desert, Randy and Beverly's family earn the ire of Nazis, Owen impersonates a bus driver for a group of Lucille Ball impersonators, and Enrico ends up fiddling with a frozen heart. The movie culminates in all reaching the locker in Silver City, though the money has been stolen by Donald P. Sinclair's assistant Grisham (Dave Thomas), though a weaponized cow thwarts him. The prize then ends up at a Smash Mouth concert for charity, where the group decides to give the prize to this noble cause while also promising that Sinclair and his cronies will match any donations, much to Sinclair's detriment.

This ending probably features one of the first listenings of Smash Mouth's earworm song "All Star," and Duane actor Seth Green spoke with Combustible Celluloid and said of the band's involvement, "Those guys were awesome! You hear certain bands, and you're like, 'yeah, I know their songs, and sure, I think they're fine.' But when you meet them and hang out with them, it's like, 'you guys are cool!' And that's what we did. We had four or five days of shooting concert stuff and on-the-stage stuff. And all those guys were really nice. And all the instruments were set up. And in between, we'd just jam until the Assistant Director would shut us down."

Critics were originally divided on Rat Race

When "Rat Race" was released in 2001, the movie was met with moderate financial success. As reported by The Numbers, the movie's production budget was $48 million, and the film ended up grossing around $91 million. Not exactly a blockbuster, but it did make its money back. Unfortunately, critics of the time were somewhat divided on the film, with a critic score of 45% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the audience score is slightly more favorable, with a 64%. Likewise, MetaCritic gives "Rat Race" a critic score of 52, while the audience score is 8.3 out of 10. This somewhat highlights a disconnect between fans and critics, though that is probably to be expected with a genre like comedy, which is tremendously subjective.

Even critics were divided, with Behind the Lens's review saying, "You'll laugh. You'll laugh so hard you cry. You'll hold you're sides from laughter. And then, you'll laugh some more. And after you've seen it once, you'll 'race' back to the theater and see it twice just to make sure you get all of the jokes." However, Emanuel Levy said in his review, "Manic, messy, and for the most part silly, this road comedy marks Zucker's bumpy return to the genre after a number of equally bumpy dramas such as 'First Knight.'"

Social media users still talk about Rat Race

However, it seems that "Rat Race" has a few proponents, even 20 odd-some years later. Over on Reddit, u/ThatIowanGuy started a conversation asking their fellow Reddit locals what their favorite "bad" movie is, and "Rat Race" completely dominated the conversation when u/ld20r brought it up, earning well over 800 up-votes for the suggestion. Several Reddit users chimed in with quotes from the movie, which became a positive feedback loop. Still, some decided to elaborate their feelings on "Rat Race," with u/LordKurin writing, "This is one of the best comedy movies of all time ... I'm honestly shocked the RT score is below 50%."

Others also felt the same way, with u/cormunicat saying, "So glad to see this movie on the list. I was laughing so hard when I saw this movie for the first time (in the theater); I had tears streaming down my face and recommended it to everyone I knew. It was a benchmark movie for funny to 23-year-old me. Unfortunately, no one ever got back to me on whether they found it as funny as I did." U/MistarEhn explains their thoughts on "Rat Race" and said that they feel like this is one of those movies one can watch and still laugh at even knowing the different bits. They added that they felt "Rat Race" nailed the slapstick style comedy, which adds to its ability to stay funny.

Rat Race has some meaty subtext

Considering the above comments from Reddit users and some critics, it seems that some still remember "Rat Race" fondly. If anything, "Rat Race" has become more topical these days with the obsession over celebrity, reality television, and easy money. When "Rat Race" was initially released, reality television was a pale shimmer of what it was to become, but after several years, this genre has become increasingly off-the-wall. Even pop culture and entertainment poke fun at this obsession with high-stakes games – think about how popular Netflix's "Squid Game" is. Despite that show's fierce games and nonchalant attitude towards human life and suffering, it isn't too much of a stretch to say that both "Rat Race" and "Squid Game" are similar in this regard, though the tone is exceptionally different. Still, both "Rat Race" and "Squid Game" show off everyday citizens competing for the amusement of an upper and powerful caste.

Besides the literary subtext of this particular movie, the basic comedy and slapstick style of humor has a certain broad appeal. In addition, the different stories and actors that come together in "Rat Race" offers a little bit for everybody. From flying cows, stealing Hitler's car, harassing a cheating lover with a helicopter, scheming titans of industry, and possibly infected piercings, there is a reason why people still enjoy "Rat Race."

The actors had a lot of fun making Rat Race

Perhaps another reason why "Rat Race" is still worth a watch even today comes down to how much enjoyment the actors themselves had making the film. In an interview with Hollywood, "Rat Race" star Amy Smart was asked about the movie's production and if she and her fellow costars had fun, and she replied, "There was such a loving energy on the set–most of the time. Jerry Zucker just set a great tone for the movie. And working with all these amazing actors ... they weren't out to prove anything but just have fun and do what they do best. So, I felt challenged to step up my performance and do my best. And I trusted Jerry to bring out the best in me and be happy with the takes we had."

So with a vast and impressive cast that thoroughly enjoyed themselves, plenty of slapstick and sight gags, and perhaps one of the first usages of Smash Mouth's "All Star," "Rat Race" may be worth a watch if one has never seen it, and if one already has, perhaps it is time for another spin. Just make sure that you don't do it because some rich person placed a bet on you doing so.