• U.S.

Cinema: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Race

6 minute read
Jess Cagle

You probably haven’t heard of this new movie, which opens this week. If you have, it may not seem very appealing. Paramount’s TV ads are ho-hum. The title has the word “rat” in it, which has all the allure of “colonoscopy.” So do yourself a favor, turn to our critic’s review on the following page, and take his advice: Go see it. Even in Hollywood, Paramount’s competition has been murmuring respectfully about Rat Race’s remarkably successful test screenings. And you should also be aware that the film actually has nothing whatsoever to do with rodents.

Quite the contrary. It stars Monty Python vet John Cleese as a Las Vegas casino titan who sends some hapless losers on a cross-country race, all for the amusement of a bunch of inveterate international gamblers wagering on which desperado will grab the prize: $2 million in a remote bus-station locker. Before the race is over, Whoopi Goldberg is stranded in the desert; Seth Green and Vince Vieluf, as two brothers whose greed is matched only by their stupidity, get trapped–in their Ford Bronco–atop an airport radar tower; a cow flies; Cuba Gooding Jr. hijacks a bus full of Lucille Ball look-alikes; and a nice Jewish couple played by Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy steal Hitler’s car from a neo-Nazi museum. “We have, I think, one of the funniest movies in the world,” says Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing. “But we have a marketing challenge.”

That’s because the $52 million comedy has no buzz. Despite raucous reaction at previews, surveys show that the general public doesn’t have much awareness of the movie. Jokes are too elaborate to capture in a 30-second TV spot, and there’s no Julia Roberts above the title to grab our attention. But in a summer full of craven action flicks made with the marketing department rather than the audience in mind, Rat Race stands out as an unabashed, family-friendly crowd pleaser.

It was a renegade project from the beginning. Two years ago, while the rest of Hollywood was trying to capitalize on the teen gross-out craze, Lansing was feeling nostalgic for the old chase formula, which had peaked in 1963 with Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman and a Who’s Who of comics in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and hadn’t been revisited since Burt Reynolds took to the road in the Cannonball Run flicks some 20 years ago. “I remember those comedies,” says Lansing, “and I enjoyed them. I said, ‘My God, what happened to that genre?'” Paramount hired Andy Breckman, a writer best known for his work with Saturday Night Live and David Letterman, who penned a screenplay free of fart jokes and full of ambitious, carefully crafted gags. Enter Jerry Zucker.

If nothing else, Rat Race marks the return of a director who was one of Hollywood’s kings of comedy in the 1980s. Zucker got his start in show business 30 years ago as part of the Kentucky Fried Theater, a comedy troupe he formed in Milwaukee, Wis., with his big brother, David, and their buddy Jim Abrahams. They built the sets, hung the lights, wrote the sketches and, because of budgetary restrictions, did all the acting themselves. “We all embarrassed easily,” recalls Zucker, “so we hated to have a joke that clunked or a long time between jokes. We wanted them laughing all the time.” They broke into Hollywood in 1977 with The Kentucky Fried Movie, a collection of bits adapted from their stage sketches. As a three-headed writing-directing team, the Zucker brothers and Abrahams (known as ZAZ) struck it rich with Airplane! in 1980 and created the Police Squad! TV series, which later became the Naked Gun movies–one of Paramount’s most enduring franchises.

But by the time of ZAZ’s last directorial collaboration, Ruthless People in 1986, they had all matured. First, they refrained from including an exclamation mark in that film’s title. Second, “we were all capable of directing a movie ourselves,” says Jerry, who now runs Zucker Productions with his wife Janet. On their own, David directed the Naked Gun movies, and Abrahams regressed to unnecessary punctuation with the Hot Shots! flicks. Jerry, for his part, decided it was time to put the spoofs behind him. “I got tired of satire,” he says. “It was fun, but I didn’t feel like doing it again.” So he directed Ghost, the hit 1990 supernatural romance that won Goldberg an Oscar, as well as First Knight, the dud 1995 Arthurian epic starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere. He also produced 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, but not until Rat Race did he get back behind the camera to make another madcap comedy. “It took me a while to get over First Knight,” Zucker says. “I like to communicate to a mass audience. If I fail at that, I feel I haven’t made a good movie.”

Zucker originally envisioned a dream team for the Rat Race cast. “We started out looking at the $20 million players,” says the director, who had hoped that comedy titans like Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Adam Sandler would trim their fees to form a star-studded ensemble. “I guess in the beginning we all thought everybody would just have to work for two weeks, so we could afford these deals,” says Zucker. “But then when we laid out the schedule, it was four or five or six weeks for each actor.” He quickly set his sights on a cast that was much cheaper, yet rich in comic abilities. Under Zucker’s guidance, Breckman spent nine months honing the script to make the most of those talents.

They ended up with a screenplay that was often inspired but resolutely uncool. “I’m not hip,” says Zucker, 51, “so it would be a shock to me to have a hip movie. I’m a fan of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton and Abbott and Costello, the older comedies where they really set up a situation and then the logical extension became funny, then there was something after that and after that.” Case in point: Lovitz not only steals Hitler’s car, he discovers a tube of Eva Braun’s lipstick in the glove compartment and accidentally smears a small but very distinctive moustache on his lip. A few scenes later, he burns his tongue with the automobile’s cigarette lighter, and the ensuing speech impediment sounds an awful lot like a German accent. Finally, he finds himself screaming at a rally of increasingly angry WW II veterans.

“I think it goes back to my training on Airplane! and the satires,” says Zucker. “We always viewed the movie as a closet where you could always stuff in one more joke.” Now the trick will be stuffing theaters with appreciative audiences. With some desperation, studio executives have been shuffling Rat Race’s release date around and staging sneak previews to generate favorable word of mouth. If they succeed, they will have pulled off a truly remarkable feat. More than two decades after Airplane!, Jerry Zucker may suddenly be considered cool. Or as ZAZ might have said it, Jerry Zucker may suddenly be considered cool!

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com