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In the 1963 dash-for-cash extravaganza It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, comic luminaries Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, and Edie Adams (not to mention Spencer Tracy, Phil Silvers, Jerry Lewis, Ethel Merman, the Three Stooges, and so on and on…) spend more than two-and-a-half hours of screen time slapsticking across California in search of $350,000 in buried booty. In lieu of a plot, Stanley Kramer, better known for helming more somber fare such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, lazily strung together self-contained skits of increasingly madcap mayhem, including such infamous Comedy 101 scenes as Winters’ bad-to-worse-to-kaboom! demolition of a desert gas station and Caesar’s similar assault on a hardware store. Despite the ambling storyline and marathon running time, the movie is the cream of the mindlessly entertaining crop. Far too many roadrageous ensemble flicks have tried to duplicate It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World’s enduring charm over the yearsmost notably those insufferably smug Cannonball Run skid marksbut almost all have failed miserably.
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At 105 minutes, director Jerry (Airplane!) Zucker’s Rat Racein which six morally vacuous vacationers steal buses, monster trucks, hot-air balloons, and you name it to try to win a whole lot more than $350,000is burdened with an inauspicious credit sequence and a bloated finish that never stops finishing. And compared with the top-flight talent corralled in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, Seth Green, Whoopi Goldberg, Breckin Meyer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. (not to mention John Cleese, Paul Rodriguez, Kathy Bates, Dave Thomas, Wayne Knight, and so on and on…) are B-list talents at best, unable to stretch their comedic abilities much further than screaming, mugging, and fleeing from the flaming wreckage. But hooray-for-idiots movies such as this one and its classic 1963 progenitor are really nothing more than the sum of their inventive set piecesplease, are you really showing up for the subtle acting? And Rat Race, thanks to a handful of slow-burn scenes deftly built by Zucker, ultimately adds up to a diverting and, at times, full-out gut-busting homage to those weightless screwball yesterdays.
The scumball rally is put into overdriven motion when a Steve Wynn-like Las Vegas casino mogul (a smirky Cleese) offers his heaviest high rollers the chance to take part in a one-in-six wager of a lifetime: A half-dozen unsuspecting dopes, after receiving mysterious gold coins at various slot machines, are given the chance to race for $2 million in cash stashed in a locker 700 miles away in Silver City, N.M. First one to grab the loot wins; the competitor who bets on the winner collects even more. “There’s only one rule,” Cleese shouts. “There are no rules!”
Not all of the players get great gags to work withGoldberg as an Oprah-worshiping mother reunited with her estranged daughter is stuck with the movie’s lamest bits, and Meyer looks straight-to-video as a lawyer who falls for a psychopathic but really cute helicopter pilot (played by the really cute Amy Smart). But Lovitz, Atkinson, and Green win big when it comes to getting the best material and would be wise to pony up part of their residual checks to Zucker and screenwriter Andy Breckman right now.
As a gambling-addicted father fed up with his wife and his two foul-mouthed kidsexpect the phrase “prairie-dogging” to become part of the scatological vernaculara smarmier-than-ever Lovitz tries to calm his bewildered family by making a quick stop at the Barbie Museum. The fact that it turns out to be a tribute to Klaus Barbie doesn’t faze him in the slightestneither does stealing Adolf Hitler’s car to keep up with the money-hungry mob and keep away from a pursuing gang of skinheads. Atkinson plays a mild-mannered Italian tourist who butchers the English languagehe proudly calls cocktail franks “cock donkeys” before popping a drippy morsel into his crawand hitches a ride with Knight’s medical-services van driver; their Two Stooges routine with an artificial heart and a stray dog escalates to such oh-God-no proportions that even the Farrelly brothers might blanch. And Green and newcomer Vince Vieluf dutifully steal their scenes as the dumber-and-dumber Cody brothers, who kick off the mayhem with a wowza stunt involving a Jeep and an air-traffic-control tower that’s worth the price of a matinee admission by itself.
For a good hour in the middle of the movie, Zucker keeps things moving quickly enough that you’re never allowed to ponder just how stoopidly each irreverent set piece unravelsnot even when you’re guffawing like a dumbass at the next one. Rat Race may not always be mad-mad-mad-mad funny, but mad-mad funny is usually good enough.
“I don’t know how I get into these things,” says American Pie 2’s 19-year-old Jim after a rough night of Super Gluing his left hand to his pecker, then Super Gluing his other hand to a porno tape, then getting trapped on the roof of his beach house, then dropping trou in front of the cops, then getting rushed to the emergency room, and thenfinallylistening to his equally dumbfounded father inform him that mistaking extra-strength adhesive for a masturbatory lubricant is all part of growing up.
Ah, sweet, innocent youth: In American Pie 2, white men still can’t humpthemselves or others. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Jim, Oz, Finch, and Kevinwith the help of this money-making franchise’s head screenwriter, Adam Herzfrom dreaming up new, and increasingly complex, schemes to get themselves laid. But whereas the over-the-top developments in Rat Race and the original American Piethose developments the studios so desperately want you to be talking about the next dayare often preposterously funny, too many of American Pie 2’s so-called shockers just feel preposterously forced. This is a shame, too, because the movie’s less-manic moments feature winning performances from Jason Biggs as Jim, Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad, and Alyson Hannigan as Jim’s flute-toting love interest, as well as a career-making star turn from (Jesus, I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me) Seann William Scott as the rude, crude Stifler, whose scene involving a randy coed, a bottle of champagne, and some wayward piss”I can just taste the bubbles!”is the movie’s revoltingly riotous highlight.
A year has passed since the boys graduated from high school (and Finch ceremoniously boinked Stifler’s mother on a pool table), but if the gang had trouble getting play back in the ‘burbs, it discovers that it’s even harder to find wanton bodies at the local university. To remedy their woefully celibate ways, they rent a house on Lake Michigan for the summerand invite the dreaded buzzkill Stifler along to pay the rent. And that’s pretty much the plot: trying to get laid…again. The understanding sweethearts of the first filmplayed by Tara Reid, Natasha Lyonne, Mena Suvari, and Shannon Elizabethshow up in only the most cameo-sized (and fully clothed) of roles, leaving Hannigan’s wide-eyed Michelle to represent the women who always get the upper hand on the dunderheaded boys.
By using many of the same tracking shots, locations, and bit characters from the first filmthe Shermanator, Stifler’s horny little brother, even that screechy monkey from the infamous Internet scenedirector J.B. Rogers and Herz strive for nothing more than a highly bankable remake of the first film. What they wind up with, however, is but a tepid footnote. Only when Biggs and Hannigan start making eyes at each otherafter learning that Czech exchange student Nadia will be returning for the summer, Jim infiltrates band camp to seek out Michelle’s guidance on why he was so lousy in the sack the first timedoes American Pie 2 recapture any of the sweet-natured playfulness of the original.
Then again, with Scott’s Stiflerthe Bluto Blutarsky of the 21st centuryable to offend anyone and everyone with just a lascivious arch of his eyebrows, maybe there’s life in this franchise yet. After all, you no doubt remember that Porky’s Revenge was a far more nuanced cinematic experience than Porky’s II: The Next Day. CP