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RUN FOR YOUR MONEY, TWO FOR THE SHOW ...

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

It takes awhile for ``Rat Race'' to get in gear, but once it does you've got a pretty high-performance joke machine.

Thankfully, director Jerry Zucker is back from his detour into high-gloss sentimental romanticism (``Ghost,'' ``First Knight''). Once again, he does what he did so well in the films he made with his brother, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams (``Airplane!'' being the prime example among them). He just collects a bunch of funny bits and running gags in a loose scenario that allows you to polish each riff to a high comic sheen.

If ``Rat Race'' falls somewhat short of the sublime, laugh-a-minute silliness of ``Airplane!'' that's because it wastes time setting up a rudimentary plot and character traits that ultimately have no bearing on the raucous action. It's pretty much a wackier retread of the 1960s comedy ``It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.'' The story, credited to ``Saturday Night Live'' writer Andy Breckman, sends several contingents of desperate/greedy schlumps on a treasure hunt from Las Vegas to Silver City, N.M., where $2 million awaits the first to get there.

As with any good road movie, the getting there is all that counts; but first, we have to meet the one-note participants.

Whoopi Goldberg is a woman who has just met her grown daughter, a high-strung entrepreneur played by Lanai Chapman, after giving her up for adoption at birth. Seth Green and Vince Vieluf are inept con artist brothers. Breckin Meyer plays an aspiring politician who's afraid to have fun at his friend's bachelor party and eventually teams up with Amy Smart's helicopter pilot, who proves to have issues. Jon Lovitz plays a gambling-addicted family man who's reluctant to tell his wife (Kathy Najimy) and their two nattering kids why they're on the road. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays an NFL ref trying to live down a humiliatingly bad call at last week's big game. And Rowan Atkinson is a blissfully goofy Italian tourist who suffers from narcolepsy.

They're all enticed by a casino owner (John Cleese, wearing prosthetic tooth extensions to little comic effect) to compete in the madcap race. What they don't know is that his crew of high rollers is secretly betting on their progress, or lack of it.

Anyway, once they hit the road (or, more often, off-road), our contestants not only encounter a variety of unexpected obstacles but - in the film's master stroke - a menagerie of Americans indulging in unusual pastimes. While the movie, as mentioned, is basically about throwing one joke after another at the screen, it also becomes less about individuals' greed and more about the weird, alarming and occasionally wonderful ways in which people share their enthusiasms.

Performances vary according to the business each actor's assigned. Lovitz, Green, newcomer Vieluf and a briefly seen but memorable Wayne Knight get the most laughs. Atkinson, who basically does an opera bouffe variation on his Mr. Bean character, takes some getting used to (and between this and the cartoonish characters in ``Captain Corelli's Mandolin,'' is this Insult Italians Week at the movies or what?).

Since many of the gags' sly set-ups, shock value and unfolding payoffs depend on surprise, we'll only hint at some of the more impressive ones: Lucys; uncontented cows; ``oh no, it's Gloria Allred''; a Barbie museum like no other (we hope).

You take it from there ... or, rather, let ``Rat Race'' take you on the summer's funniest ride.

``RAT RACE''

(Rated PG-13: language, nudity, comic violence)

The stars: Rowan Atkinson, Lanai Chapman, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer, Kathy Najimy, Amy Smart, Vince Vieluf.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Jerry Zucker. Written by Andy Breckman. Produced by Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker and Sean Daniel. Released by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: One hour, 52 minutes.

Playing: Citywide.

Our rating: Three stars.

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Photo:

Blaine Cody (Vince Vieluf, left) and Duane Cody (Seth Green) hunt for treasure in ``Rat Race.''
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Aug 17, 2001
Words:663
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