Dir: Jerry Zucker. US.2001. 101 mins.

A van carrying a human heart destined for transplant; a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators; a cow that goes up in the air as if it were a balloon. These are justthree of the elements that make Rat Race, Jerry Zucker's road comedy, one of the year's most chaotic and riotously funny movies. Manic, messy, and quite silly for the most part, Rat Race marks Jerry Zucker's return to comedy after directing a number of popular dramas, including Ghost and First Knight. It brings together the talents of some of the most gifted comedians working in film today, including Jon Lovitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy, and a fabulous but uncredited Kathy Bates. With the help of positive word-of-mouth, Paramount's late summer release (pushed back from June) stands a chance of going through the roof, perhaps even surpassing $100m domestically. Despite its American humor and locale, the movie's broadslapstick and international cast, headed by Mr. Bean's Rowan Atkinson and the Monty Python's John Cleese, also bode well for a solid success internationally as well.

Recalling Stanley Kramer's1963 all-star comedy, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which concerns a group of people racing to recovera hidden bank loot under Spencer Tracy's tight supervision, Rat Race revives a long-neglected tradition: The big-eventchase comedy that revolves around a large ensemble. Containing big visual stunts and sight gags, which fulfillthe same function as big production numbers in a musical, Rat Race could be described as a manically messy James Bondcomedy.

The premise is simple buteffective. Determined to keep his wealthiest high rollers happy, Vegas casinotycoon, Donald Sinclair (Cleese), concocts a new, semi-legal sporting event forthem to bet on, a human "rat race." "I can do anything I want to, I'm eccentric," heexclaims, which no one challenges.Sinclair has put six specially minted gold coins in six different slotmachines, and anyone who wins a coin is welcome to join. The "bigcheese" is two million dollars in cash, placed in a duffel bag in a lockerroom in Silver City, New Mexico. Randomly chosen, the six Rat Racers areordinary people.

In a rapid manner, viewersare introduced to the eccentric ensemble. Vera Baker (Goldberg), having givenup her baby up for adoption, decides it's time to finally meet her daughter inVegas' Venetian Hotel. Owen Templeton (Gooding Jr.), who has blown a call in animportant NFL game, is drowning his sorrow and attempts to escape his newfoundauthority at the Venetian's casino-bar.Mr. Pollini (Atkinson) is an exuberantly cheerful Italian - who happensto be narcoleptic.

Then there's the Pearfamily, which drives father-husband Randy (Lovitz) nuts in their hotel, pushinghim in the midst of a vacation to the casino to play lot machines. The Codybrothers (Green and Vieluf) are criminally minded misfits with a specialpenchant for causing mayhem and mischief wherever they go. Rounding out thecast are Nick (Meyer), a cynical lawyer in training, and Tracy (Smart), avivacious pilot who makes the fateful mistake of stopping at her boyfriend'shouse, where he's caught cheating on her.

The Racers are engaged in akind of contest in which anything goes. Indeed, they use every means oftransportation imaginable -- plane, train, helicopter, horse, cow andpractically anything else that moves -- to reach their destination. Embodying the crass, ruthlesslymaterialistic nature of American culture (after all, the movie is set inVegas), the match has no rules or mores, which encourages the contestants tocheat, lie, and even sabotage each other. What the Racers are unaware of isthat Sinclair and his gambling-crazed people are tracking their everymove--like rats in a research lab--and betting on the outcome.

Each of the characters isput in a series of funny and bizarre situations, too chaotic and senseless tobe described in words. En route, one man commandeers a bus with 40 Lucille Ballimpersonators, and another rides shotgun in an organ-donor truck. One of thepicture's most hilarious highlights is an encounter between the mother-daughterteam and a woman describing herself as a "squirrel lady."

Jerry Zucker has made hisname burlesquing genre movies with his partners David Zucker and Jim Abrahams (Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Ruthless People) beforedirecting Ghost on his own. Fewfilmmakers have been as good with slapstick as the Zuckers-Abrahams team. RatRace, which should not be confusedwith the 1960 Robert Mulligan comedy of the same title starring Tony Curtis andDebbie Reynolds, is staged as a broad comedy, with mass zaniness that makesnasty fun of the people themselves.

As in his previouscollaborations, Zucker is committed to brutal insults, attacks on pop culture cliches,and outrageous obscenities that are basically juvenilia material. Working inlow-satirical, comic-book style, he grinds healthy laughs out of meatballparody.

Jim Carrey was destined tostar, but his tag-price of $20m scared the producers, and instead they optedfor a lesser-name cast, from which the movie benefits: The lack of mega-starsmakes the characters' more ordinary, their desperation more believable.

Prod co: A Paramount Pictures presentation, inassociation with Fireworks Pictures, of an Alphaville/Zucker production
US dist
: Paramount
Int'l dist
: FireworksPictures
Exec prods
: Richard Vane,James Jacks
: Jerry Zucker, JanetZucker, Sean Daniel
: Andy Breckman
: Thomas Ackerman
: Tom Lewis
: John Powell
Main cast
: Rowan Atkinson,John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz,Breckin Meyer, Kathy Najimy, Amy Smart