Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rat Race

My next gig in my summer long concert tour was, of course, my appearance at the annual 'Hip Hop' awards that all my fans have long been looking forward to. Something named Death Row records sent the corporate jet to Dallas to pick me up along with a nice black gentleman who wore a lot of hood ornaments around his neck and seemed to go by the name of Snoopy Dog. We arrived safely in Miami and I settled in comfortably at my suite at the Fontainbleau.

Rehearsals for the show began the next day so I packed up all my tap outfits and presented myself at the concert venue. It appears they were expecting Eminem, small blond male rap star in a white T-shirt rather than MNM - majestic star of stage and screen wearing my best 'Dark Victory' Maine's Manes wig and a black sequin tuxedo tap outfit. It could have been a disaster but P. Diddley and I sat down with some of my lead sheets and did some quick lyric rewriting so I was able to wow the audience with Rap Your Troubles Away, and Forget Your Troubles, Come On Get Rapping. Rather than co-host, I did featured spots as it seemed to help the flow of the show better. I had four of the sweetest men, who all seemed to be called 'Thug' something as backup dancers. I don't know all what they were doing back there as they did not wear tap shoes but the audience loved them.

Fresh from this triumph, I had a few hours to kill so I put on my turban and wrap around sunglasses, so as not to be recognized, and made my way to the local moviehouse. There I saw the matinee of Jerry Zucker's new film, Rat Race - a choice I made as I wanted to learn more about the desert southwest prior to my next concert date.

Rat Race is one of those frantic, large cast comedies that were in vogue in the late fifties and early sixties. Such films are often best seen in the theater as laughter is infectious and giggles and guffaws from other rows often make the films seem funnier than they are. This film is an unofficial remake of the biggest of that cycle of comedies, Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from 1963. The original involved a disparate group of people travelling through the desert southwest who come upon a car accident. A dying Jimmy Durante imparts to his would be rescuers the secret location of a stash of money and the chase is on...

Rat Race keeps the desert southwest setting (it starts in Las Vegas and ends in southern New Mexico - however, as most of it was filmed in Alberta, near Calgary, it's the lushest looking Southwest you'll ever see...). It also keeps the 'everyone for him or her self' idea of racing for a fixed goal and the 'joker in the deck' - the person out for the money for very different motivations. However, while Kramer's film had very telling socio-political points to make throughout, this one is just for fun - and in some ways, this weakens the film.

John Cleese is Donald Sinclair, a Trump type figure who likes to give the high rollers at his casino, new and interesting things on which to bet. He concocts a no holds barred race for $2 million in cash for a group of disparate losers and soon the contestants are off via car, chopper, hot air balloon, ambulance, and tourist bus to try and get to the finish line first. The contestants are a dimwitted, narcoleptic Italian (Rowan Atkinson), a button-down lawyer (Breckin Meyer), a mother meeting her long lost daughter for the first time (Whoopi Goldberg), a Jewish American family on vacation (Jon Lovitz & Kathy Najimy), a couple of small time con-artists (Seth Green and Vince Vileuf) and a disgraced football ref (Cuba Gooding Jr.).

Some of the adventures and sight gags that happen along the way are truly inspired. The Jewish family end up in Hitler's touring car, the ref commandeers a bus full of 'I Love Lucy' buffs in full Lucy regalia to whom horrible things happen. Mother and daughter learn they're more alike than different as they steal various modes of transport including a rocket. There's a fairly funny sequence involving a cow and a hot air balloon that keeps returning.

The biggest weakness is in the performances. Kramer had a cast of comics trained in vaudeville and burlesque through thousands of stage performances who had exquisite timing. Zucker has a couple of these, but most of his cast, especially the younger members, just aren't up to the over the top demands of the roles. People like Seth Green or Breckin Meyer, while charming performers, don't have the manic energy required for this type of piece. Some do - Rowan Atkinson was made for this type of film and has brilliant moments. Unfortunately, he's been directed to channel Roberto Begnini. (I have the funny feeling that the part was written for Begnini and he turned it down...). Whoopi Goldberg has some great moments, but not enough of them.

Zucker, working from a script by Andrew Breckman, keeps things moving and the film is never slow or dull. He also keeps all six or seven plot lines clear and the transitions between them are effortless. He louses up the finale, however. Like all good films of this type, the ending is a bit of a twist. Unfortunately, the twist is jarringly out of tone with the movie and the prior events and feels like a cop-out.

In many ways, this film is closer to Midnight Madness, a cheap comedy from 1980 (most noticeable for a pre-Family Ties Michael J. Fox) where college kids run around LA on a treasure hunt, than it is to Kramer's comic extravaganza. There was a point to Kramer's jokes that's lacking here. That doesn't mean I didn't have the occasional giggles and made my Lesterene mascara run...

Slot machine tokens. Shot glass slipping. Dangling jeep. Gratuitous prairie dog slur. Eva Braun lipstick. Flying cow. Gratuitous star cameos. Sonic boom. Burning Lucy wig. Jealous chopper pilot. Gratuitous Pepto-Bismol joke. Heart under attack. Smashmouth concert.

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