Yes, I’m writing about Rat Race again. My last attempt was a four-and-a-half thousand-word essay that interpreted the events of the film literally, to try and figure out who should have ‘won’. Don’t worry: I’m not doing that again.
An exciting thought emerged as I researched that article. Each of the characters had a very different type of adventure. And I wondered how the films’ writer had decided what would happen to each character. Was there deliberate artifice in the choices? Or was it all just pretty random? Just whatever seemed like it would be funny?
In the spirit of “content” I’ve tried to unravel what may or may not be the themes for each character or family strand in the movie. It may be tenuous, but it’s a new way to look at the film!
Duane and Blaine represent the consequences of evil.
Brothers Duane and Blaine are the secondary antagonists of Rat Race, being the couple who most actively try to sabotage the others’ attempts at winning.
Their approach to the competition parallels that of Wacky Races’ Dick Dastardly. They get ahead of the others, attempt to sabotage them, and end of worse off in the process. Blaine even resembles Mutley to some extent, being a non-verbal sidekick to the chief schemer.
Their plans backfire twice in the movie: once during their attempts to conduct domestic terrorism by destroying the airport radar, and once again when they try to get a second key cut. In each case, things go badly almost immediately. The God of the Rat Race universe is moralistic and deals out punishment swiftly.
The pair come closest to death during the Monster Truck rally sequence, where they are almost crushed. They ultimately survive albeit battered and bruised. Broken men, they represent the consequences of selfishness.
Enrico Pollini represents the immigrant experience.
Pollini is the film’s foreigner. Literally the odd one out, not just by heritage but by his behaviour. But he is the one who shows genuine amazement and wonder at the new world he’s in – “A gold coin. Isn’t this wonderful? What a beautiful room. Have you seen this room?“.
“Yes. We’re in it” the others reply. The splendours of their environment no longer impress them. It’s their world, and Pollini’s clearly marked out as a stranger. He struggles with the vocabulary and generally doesn’t quite fit in.
He’s hampered from the start by disability. His narcolepsy gives him an inherent disadvantage versus the others, in addition to his lesser grasp on their world. And so the other shun him, either mocking him or ignoring him entirely.
Rat Race itself then ignores him! He falls asleep immediately (asleep = unwoke, btw) and he disappears from the narrative until Wayne Knight shows up. Knight’s character is called Zack Mallozzi, suggesting an Italian heritage himself. Thus Mallozzi may represent the previous generation of immigrants who are settled and support the newer arrivals.
Mallozzi whisks Pollini across the state to deliver a transplant heart. Even the heart, then, is an immigrant! Taken from somewhere else to be put somewhere new. Pollini, of course, sabotages the heart which causes Mallozzi to turn on him. The exchange perhaps shows inter-generational conflict between immigrants.
In the end, of course, Pollini is the winner. So the American dream is fulfilled, the man who comes from nothing walks away the richest.
Owen Templeton represents the ugly side of fame and its ultimate redemption through anonymity.
Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Owen Templeton, a disgraced football referee hiding from his mistakes. After a miscalled coin toss he’s a national figure of ridicule. And even in the very first scene, he’s referred to as the “loser of the week”.
Throughout the film, he’s recognised by others (celebrity!) and shamed for it (ridicule!). The most telling example of the two going hand-in-hand is the two exchanges with the taxi driver. At first, the driver doesn’t recognise him and is perfectly cordial. But as soon as he’s reminded who Templeton is, he turns violent. So we see the ‘everyman’ holding the celebrity in contempt.
But after Templeton suffers his ultimate humiliation and suffering, what do we see? He’s given the opportunity for redemption by pretending to be a bus driver. Now, this is where it gets really interesting.
In pretending to be a bus driver, he gives up his own identity as a celebrity. The cab driver stripped him of his clothes (identity, fame, status) and he, in turn, dons the garments of another driver. Having reinvented himself as an everyman, he begins his journey as a new man.
And who’s he driving? A bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators! ‘Everymen’ pretending to be celebrities! And he hates them. He finds their behaviour obnoxious and ends up yelling at them. (I always found it interesting that he tells one Lucille to stop smoking on the coach – as if he has any reason to uphold the rules). So by the end, he’s undergone a full arc.
There’s also probably something about gender in there. But I think the celebrity/anonymity thing is good enough to call a theme in Rat Race.
Vera and Merill represent the struggles of parenthood.
Vera and Merill are an estranged mother/daughter combo forced into working together because of the Rat Race competition. Or to look at it another way: they’ve been given a sudden responsibility they never asked for and aren’t equipped to deal with.
Yeah, they’re new parents! Their relationship as mother and daughter is already strained from years of non-contact. And this is reflected in their story arc.
It’s not all obvious, though. But let’s take a look at what happens to the pair. Their initial plans at the airport go awry. Despite Merrill having all the resources available, she’s unable to use them. Instead, she has to deal with the frustratingly slow attendant at the car hire. Parenthood is a great leveller and something that no amount of preparation can make easy.
On the road, they stop and ask for advice. As parents often do, they turn to others (books or other parents) to be told what to do. The Squirrel Lady is a motherly figure herself, of course. But her children are wild and different. Her ‘rats’ are kept in cages, a tough approach to love.
And where does her advice take the pair? Straight off a cliff.
The pair stumble around for the rest of the film in a bit of a daze. They achieve remarkable things, like breaking the land speed record. Parents are capable of superhuman feats, it seems. But ultimately they end up broken and exhausted, barely coherent. Their composure from the start of the film is completely lost. Parenthood!
The Pear Family represent Jewish persecution in the 20th Century.
Ok, I’m not sure about this either. But there’s definitely something weird with the Pear family and Nazis. Early on, there’s an odd exchange where the daughter says she’s getting a Volkswagen Beetle as her first car. Her father scolds her otherwise, “because the Volkswagen Beetle was used by the Nazis“. Remember this.
The family are stopped by the police (harassed by the authorities). And then they visit the “Barbie Museum.” This turns out, of course, to be a museum celebrating the life of SS Gestapo functionary Klaus Barbie. There, they are forced to relive the horrors of 1940s Germany. (Rat Race is brazenly open about Holocaust denial, using the phrase “Jew revisionists” way too freely for a family movie).
When the family try to leave, they are confronted about it. And to escape, they attempt to present as non-Jewish: “Well, we have a book-burning, and then we have a–a christening. – Yes, a christening… for one of our many white, Christian, non-Jewish friends–family. Blood relatives.” What the hell, screenplay writer! Anyway, they successfully pass for Christian before leaving and finding they have been attacked anyway – their car has been vandalised.
They steal Hitler’s car and are on their way. On their journey, though, they are still persecuted and attacked by what appears to be a Neo-nazi biker gang. Forced off the road, they crash into a WW2 veteran’s rally (what are the odds!) and are still attacked! They there are booed, jeered, and even shot at.
Throughout the film, the family are not just harassed but actively attacked. But they do nothing wrong or do anything worthy of retaliation. The father ultimately tries to shield his family from the horrors by drugging them, sending them to sleep for some respite.
Nick and Tracy represent ‘man against machine’.
The typical classifications of conflict in fiction are man against man, man against nature, man against self, and man against society. Most myths and stories revolve the drama of one of these conflicts. But more modern stories have established new classifications, as the nature of our existential plight shifts with the times. So some have suggested man against machine as a new one, representing the unresolved conflict between human purpose and agency we give machines to do it for us. Yes, just like in Terminator.
What unites Nick and Tracy, two complete strangers? Weirdly, it’s a man and a machine. They both happen to be reading the exact same biography of Charles Lindbergh at the same time. This is a massive coincidence, and we shouldn’t ignore it. Lindbergh’s tale itself is one of man against nature (flying across an impassable ocean), but the pair have to deal with the instrument of that conflict: the flying machine.
All flights from the airport are cancelled when the Cody brothers sabotage the radar. Boom, the machines fail. Thus the humans fail because of their dependence on machines. But aha! Tracy has a unique advantage, her mastery of a different type of flying machine – a helicopter.
They use this helicopter to massively overtake the others. But along the way, their helicopter fails (thanks to some reckless flying). They have to steal a truck, which ultimate ALSO fails.
There’s a bit of classic man against man as they deal with the corrupt mechanic. (Stacy can fix the car herself it seems, through knowledge of DIY car repair). But fundamentally their troubles come from the machines they use, and they overcome them through mastery of them.
Smashmouth represent Smashmouth