Speed racer

A few good gags avert Rat Race from crashing

So there's this part in the movie Rat Race where hip young actor Seth Green dangles in mid-air, clutching the neck of a cow. See, the cow's hoof is caught in a rope from a hot-air balloon that's floating out of control over a pasture. But that's not the unusual thing, since the shrill, sporadically funny Rat Race consists almost entirely of such elaborate stunts.

At one point, the hapless Guernsey blows its nose fully in Green's face. But that's not really such an odd sight, either, when you recall how recent films by the Farrelly and the Wayans brothers traffic in jokes about bodily fluids — human, bovine or otherwise.

What's striking about the cow-snot scene is that it's essentially the only such gross-out scene in Rat Race, not counting some bits about a transplant heart that gets knocked around. It's surprisingly refreshing to see a big comedy that doesn't go for laughs by turning your stomach or coming up with some unsavory anatomical combination. With hope, it's a sign that Hollywood's attachment to icky humor has peaked.

If only Rat Race were more than a half-success, it would be a comedy worth celebrating. As is, it's a smaller scale version of the venerable chase comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, boasting a few jokes that are genuine gems amid a lot of thud and blunder.

Rat Race's premise is perfectly simple (and even resembles a CBS reality show, "The Amazing Race," debuting in September). Six strangers at a Las Vegas casino are randomly selected for a competition: The first one who, using any means necessary, reaches a train locker in a New Mexican town, gets $2 million. It's the brainchild of betting-crazed casino owner, played by John Cleese in a pair of huge, stark-white dentures that are hypnotic to behold. You're not even sure it's really the ex-Python until he speaks.

Most of the players are accompanied by family or unexpected teammates. In addition to Green and his brother Vince Vieluf, who has a tongue stud that renders him unintelligible, the racers include Whoopi Goldberg and Lanei Chapman as long-lost mother and daughter; Rowan Atkinson as a narcoleptic Italian; Cuba Gooding as a dim football referee; and Breckin Meyer as a cautious law associate.

The film's most entertaining group, however, consists of Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy as a bickering middle-class couple vacationing with their bratty kids. Having a gambling problem, Lovitz doesn't reveal his participation in the race, but his family insists on accompanying him to New Mexico despite his inexplicable urgency. Rat Race's finest running joke begins with the family stopping at the Barbie Museum, later features the line "You can't play Hitler's harmonica!" and builds to a hilariously fitting pay-off. Only a party-pooper would give it away, but it's a textbook example of how to set up, sustain and resolve a gag.

Other good jokes find Cleese and his factotum ("SCTV's" David Thomas) arranging increasingly outlandish wagers, like which casino maid can hang longest from a curtain rod without falling off. Many of the actors have at least one good moment, and the cast includes Kathy Bates as a roadside squirrel seller and Wayne Knight as a twitchy ambulance driver. But while Atkinson can be a brilliant comic actor, here he's in the mode of his grating Mr. Bean-style silliness and not his slow-burning Blackadder.

The physical comedy involves rocket cars, helicopters, bullet trains and a tour bus packed with Lucille Ball impersonators. Perhaps the best single shot has Green and Vieluf discovering that their car is situated exactly where a leaping monster truck is about to land, and the two actors try to climb over each other in slow motion, as the vehicle gets closer and closer over their shoulders. But mostly the film's punchlines have something getting destroyed and somebody emitting a primal scream.

Rat Race is directed by Jerry Zucker, one of the most successful directors among the creators of Airplane! (having hit big with Ghost). Here he shows an eye for funny-looking character actors and an ear for good soundtrack songs: Baha Men's dopey but catchy title tune seems inspired by "Holiday Road" from the Vacation movies. Classical music cleverly accompanies some sequences, while Smash Mouth's "All Star" would make a delightful track for the final scene, if only it hadn't already been used in what seems like dozens of films (most recently Shrek).

Rat Race's scenes with Jon Lovitz and John Cleese may be priceless, but the film as a whole probably isn't worth the cost of a non-matinee ticket. Sure, it's preferable to The Cannonball Run, but don't feel you have to race out to catch it.??