Hot from the Oven

Here's an outlandish idea: send contestants, one against the other, off on a cross-country contest to win a large bundle of cash. No, this isn't Survivor III, it's Rat Race, the latest comedy from the makers of Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun. Jerry Zucker's famous string of outrageous sight-gag comedies in the '80s and early '90s set a new standard for madcap comedy, attempting to get more than a laugh per minute. Back then, of course, they were considered rather lowbrow, but hilarious. Compared to today's gutter-dwelling comedies that depend on the profane and the taboo for shock-value laughs, Zucker's movies seem clever and old-fashioned. Will that old Zucker magic still make audiences laugh? Loosely based on the classic madcap farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and starring comic geniuses John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson alongside Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oscar hostess Whoopi Goldberg, Rat Race scored high in this week's box office top ten.

Preview's Paul Bicking calls Rat Race "questionable at best." He faults "less-than-humorous sight gags," the fact that the characters use some questionable language and, in the midst of this farce's zaniness, "some of the characters actually lie to each other." And Douglas Downs at Christian Spotlight on the Movies is greatly distressed: "Zucker, who soared in the comedy Airplane! and the romantic drama Ghost, crash lands in this film. His 80-plus cast did provide work for three of his family members (how nice). Too bad his cast didn't work to provide a decent comedy. Where are Red Skelton, Buddy Hackett, Bill Cosby, and Jonathan Winters when you need them? Ninety minutes never seemed so long."

But Movieguide's critic points out that these characters' misbehaviors do lead to the appropriate consequences: "Greedy acts land them in even more trouble. Also, the story ends on a strong moral note, in a slightly redemptive fashion." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser agrees: "It all ends with a benevolent twist that puts the immoral scheming in perspective, but the ride is still pretty bumpy. Gags come fast and furious in Rat Race. Many of them are laugh-out-loud funny. And in an era of cutthroat reality TV, the finale has nice warmth to it." He adds, however, "unnecessary detours spoil the trip."

Others offer half-hearted compliments. The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic says, "Jerry Zucker's road comedy garners several laughs despite the familiar concept." "I could've used more John Cleese," says The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks, "but there were still enough laughs to keep me smiling. Thankfully, screenwriter Andy Breckman mostly eschews the gross-out comedy that's so prevalent today." On the other hand, he has nothing good to say about Gooding: "His comic timing is horrible, and he's reduced to making weird faces and looking surprised. It's one of the most painful performances of the year."

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A few stood and cheered. Movie Parables' Michael Elliott enthuses: "Director Jerry Zucker and screenwriter Andy Breckman concoct some pretty ridiculous scenarios. The reason they work is … they stick with them to the end. No hit-and-run comedy here. They'll hit us with a joke, then back up and hit us with the same joke four, five, twelve times. For some reason, it makes it all the funnier." He also finds truth in the film's assumptions about human nature: "Certainly there is nothing spiritually wrong with being wealthy. It is just when becoming rich turns into an all-consuming passion that we find ourselves treading in dangerous waters." And Phil Boatwright at The Dove Foundation came away more impressed than anyone. "Knowing the mindset of today's filmmakers, I expected this remake to be more like the coarse Cannonball Run than the non-offensive Mad World. How surprised and pleased I was that I finally found a comedy that made me laugh so hard, I nearly doubled over. I simply can't remember the last time a comedy consisted of so much hilarity."

While Scripture exhorts us not to laugh at the folly of another human being, comedy such as this exaggerates human behavior so that we laugh out of recognition. We've all stumbled once or twice out of a desire for personal gain. In a year when television studios are offering a plethora of reality-based shows and new game shows with enormous cash prizes, perhaps Rat Race is a well-timed reminder that money is not the answer, and contests that appeal to our baser appetites bring out the worst in us. Laughing at these desperate, cartoonish money-grubbers is probably a lot healthier than tuning in, week after week, to the addicting soap operas of real people behaving reprehensibly in hopes of winning the world's rewards. In the end, Rat Race may even be more honest.

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While money-chasing goofballs get the spotlight in Rat Race, American Outlaws wants us to believe that bank robbers are our heroes.

"Bad is good again," boasts the tag line for this new Hollywood western—as if vigilante justice had ever gone out of style on the big screen! Audiences love to have an excuse to root for bad guys. They act on whims, whether selfish or generous, assuring us we can feel good about doing the same. Audiences also love to see the Law and the Establishment defeated. Forces that bring order limit us, to some extent, and this is easily portrayed as a crime against the all-American ethic: the pursuit of happiness. It can be troubling to look at America's movie heroes and see how consistently they represent rebellion and anarchy in the name of love. Even if the authority they are fighting is portrayed as villainous, after heroes have saved the day, they rarely offer any kind of alternative "order" that will provide security or stability for the people they act to support. (That's why God's law is so wonderful; obeying it is a liberating thing. The more we follow, the more we are set free from what binds us.)

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American Outlaws takes this tradition of rebel-rousing to an audacious extreme, making a noble hero out of the legendary, murderous bank robber Jesse James (portrayed here by Collin Farrell). It's no surprise the film draws fire from religious media critics.

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott feels the movie makes off with the audience's sense of morality: "Not since Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid has bank robbery looked so appealing. We couldn't ask to see a more charming bunch of bandits. In fact, this film would have us believing that thievery is downright noble." He especially criticizes the glamorization of Jesse James. "[Colin Farrell's] Jesse could be a poster boy for manners and politeness if it wasn't for all that sanitized killing that the film discreetly keeps at a safe distance. Despite the fact that they committed crimes, killing people in the process, we are manipulated to root for these good 'bad guys' and for their success."

Similarly, Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser responds with Scripture: "Isaiah 5:20 warns, 'Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.' Situational ethics create sympathy for immoral people, inspiring the audience to root for vengeful young outlaws because they're not as inherently evil as the bad guys working for the railroad." Beyond the ethical issues, Smithouser finds this western dilapidated, dusty, and doomed to fail: "Clearly targeting the MTV crowd … Outlaws is yet another case of style over substance. And even the style feels tired. It's not an awful movie, but a hectic one inhabited by characters who look and act like they're on their way to a western-themed frat party. Yet for all of its obvious demographic calculations, American Outlaws fails to realize that most teens find westerns about as attractive as snakebite." Likewise, the U.S. Catholic Conference calls it an "awful western": "Giving the famed bandit's fabled story a weak comedic spin, director Les Mayfield's pathetic attempt is slow and aimless despite the many overdone action sequences." At Preview, Paul Bicking finds that it boasts "the fun and action of classic westerns" but sends the movie to the gallows based on "frequent shootouts and crude dialogue" rather than situational ethics.

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Firing back, The Dove Foundation's Dick Rolfe defends the movie, arguing that the movie's whimsical reimagining of history's account isn't supposed to be taken as serious history, but as mythmaking. "I enjoyed American Outlaws. It has much to offer in the way of entertainment. All of the characters in this action-packed western are bigger than life." He is also pleased to see that "the violence is neither explicit nor gratuitous."

Among mainstream critics, Rotten Tomatoes's Victoria Alexander joined other critics in spelling out a more elementary problem: boredom. "The screenwriters must have written this solely because they liked horses," she writes. "I still don't know anything about the James Gang or why they got so famous. Jesse and Frank James—the blandest folk heroes in American history!"

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Speaking of robbery, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is director John Madden's first film since his whimsical Shakespeare in Love snatched a Best Picture Oscar away from Saving Private Ryan. But the movie is probably getting far more attention because of its star. It's not Nicolas Cage, but the actress playing Cage's love interest in the film—Penelope Cruz—whose name is up in lights these days because of her confirmed relationship with the recently divorced Tom Cruise. American audiences, more often interested in celebrity and scandal than good storytelling, are lining up to see this rising star now that they have a reason to notice her. (Sound implausible? Turn the clock back a year: She starred in another historical-fiction romance just last year, alongside Matt Damon, the Billy Bob Thornton-directed All the Pretty Horses. The movie disappeared quickly and quietly. This was before the headline-grabbing gossip.)

Cruz plays Pelagia, the daughter of an Italian doctor (John Hurt) tending for an injured Italian soldier (Cage) who can pluck her heartstrings as skillfully as he plays the mandolin. But most critics, focusing on the movie rather than the gossip, were not seduced (although they agree that the Italian scenery is almost worth the price of a ticket).

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A critic at the U.S. Catholic Conference writes, "Aside from its majestic presentation … Madden's mildly engaging romance strikes too many false notes to have real emotional resonance." Movieguide's review reports that the film's "romantic worldview … suggests that culture (Nazi Germany, for example) corrupts human nature." But Movieguide's critic is relieved that this problem is "mitigated by strong moral content and expressions of Christian faith by many of the villagers."

Mainstream critics criticize it on artistic rather than ethical terms. "Mandolin comes engagingly close to being the assured romantic epic you would want it to be," says The Hollywood Reporter's Mark Adams, "but there is just not enough in most departments—acting, script, direction—to push it into the 'must see' movie bracket. The lure … just like the music from that delicate instrument … is tantalizing rather than totally satisfying." Jessica Winter at The Village Voice is not as generous: "Captain Corelli's Mandolin billows in any direction that Shawn Slovo's gasbag script might blow it. The big message seems to be that tolerance is good, but since the film doesn't differentiate between politics and jingoism, it needs to demonstrate that We're All the Same Inside, right down to how everybody on the island speaks English with a similar intermittent Mediterranean accent." She does, however, applaud the film's rising star: "Ms. Cruz, apparently optimistic about her corner of Hollywood's gilded cage, once again proves her inability to give a bad performance even under the worst of circumstances."

Still Cooking

While adolescent humor still ruled the box office, more critics were discovering the much-lauded thriller that Film Forum featured last week, The Deep End.

J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth reports the film "is worth seeing just to see Tilda Swinton's fantastic performance. She is the protective mother caught between a rock and a hard place. The Deep End is an intelligent thriller that's more intelligent than thrilling." He does, however, register a reservation others hadn't observed: "Part of the problem with each film is that it's hard to make a thriller when the sun is out. Despite The Deep End's gorgeous cinematography … and its evocative portrayal of the solitary side of Tahoe, California, the story's inherent tension is often diffused."

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Send It Back to the Kitchen

Parks also publishes a review of a film opening for wide-release this weekend—John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Call it an early warning.

"Well, you see," he explains, "miners have inadvertently woken up a strange alien force lying dormant in the Martian rocks. The disease-like creature … invades our bodies, takes over our minds, and makes us dress up like Marilyn Manson. No wonder everyone's killing themselves. The movie's script is constructed as one long flashback, which makes it pretty clear which characters are going to survive and which are going to be grist for the decapitating throng. Fans of video-game violence will be disappointed … the fight scenes are embarrassingly static, as if Carpenter had forgotten how to make a swinging mace look real. And the numerous explosions are accompanied by extras jumping into the air; they look like bad gymnasts instead of people being cut down by shrapnel. The roar of the crowd was deafening. Or maybe that was just the noise of people scrambling for the doors."

Similarly, the U.S. Catholic Conference says this "pathetic survival story soon collapses under the weight of constant shootouts, beheadings and explosions as a deafening sound track fails to distract from onscreen schlock."

Perhaps moviegoers will take comfort in noting the calendar—summer's almost over. Usually that means some quality filmmaking is just around the corner. How many months now until The Fellowship of the Ring?

Next Week: Apocalypse Now … again. Why does Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece linger in our memory? Why are such memorable and challenging movies so rare? Critics share their thoughts on this classic, and respond to the revised release. Also, responses to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the latest Woody Allen comedy, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: American Pie 2, Rush Hour 2, The Others, The Princess Diaries, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park 3, Legally Blonde, and Osmosis Jones.