Take the Money and Run: Rat Race (2001) as Socialist Parable
Disclaimer: This review is a case study in overanalysis. It is extremely unlikely that any of the political conclusions drawn here existed in the minds of the writers when they created the screenplay for this madcap comedy caper. But one of the virtues of the Marxist method is its ability to provide new insights into things we would otherwise regard as ordinary or commonplace. Spoilers ahead.
“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”
- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
On its surface, Jerry Zucker’s 2001 film Rat Race is light-hearted comedic fare with little in the way of profound political messaging. The plot involves six teams of people at a Las Vegas hotel and casino who are recruited by the resort’s billionaire owner Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) to participate in a race for the betting pleasure of himself and his wealthy peers. A duffel bag containing $2 million in cash has been stowed away in a train station locker 563 miles away in Silver City, New Mexico. Each team receives a key to the locker, and whichever team reaches the locker first wins the race and keeps the money.
The teams consist of:
- an attorney (Breckin Meyer) and a helicopter pilot (Amy Smart);
- a disgraced football referee (Cuba Gooding, Jr.);
- a pair of twin brother con artists (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf);
- a family man (Jon Lovitz), his wife, son, and daughter;
- a short-fused businesswoman (Lanai Chapman) with her estranged but kind mother (Whoopi Goldberg); and
- an Italian narcoleptic (Rowan Atkinson).
Of these characters, businesswoman Merrill Jennings and lawyer Nick Schaffer would likely have the highest incomes, followed by pilot Tracey Faucet, referee Owen Templeton and minivan-driving family man Randy Pear (who lies to his wife about job prospects). Marked by the lowest incomes are twin con artists Duane and Blaine Cody, as well as the eccentric foreigner, Enrico Pollini, whose suit is cheap and occupation unknown.
In short, the competitors come from a variety of social backgrounds. It is significant that Nick originally has no interest in competing and tosses away the key. As an attorney, his likely substantial income permits him the luxury of throwing away this 1 in 6 chance of becoming instantly wealthy. He only changes his mind when the Cody brothers’ shenanigans ground all planes at the airport, and his conversation with a helicopter pilot gives him a solid chance of winning the race.
A businesswoman who screams into her phone at subordinates, Merrill is likely the most financially well-off of these “ordinary people”. But given her enthusiasm for the race, it is doubtful that she possesses anything approaching the immense riches of someone like Donald Sinclair.
Mass popular entertainment in capitalist society tends to gloss over class differences. Thus a film like Rat Race can portray team members from various economic backgrounds as equally “ordinary”. But for our purposes, the competitors’ clear difference with Sinclair is the fact that each would stand to benefit substantially from possessing $2 million, whereas for Sinclair and his pals, such a hefty sum is mere pocket change. In #occupy terms, this is the story of the 99% battling it out for the amusement of the 1%.
All participants seem initially wary of the race, but when Owen appears to get a head start greed kicks in and the rest quickly run after him. In their desperation, everyone ends up in a tangled heap at the bottom of a staircase. The mad race for individual riches has led to counterproductive in-fighting amongst the individuals chosen to compete for the enjoyment of the bourgeoisie.
As representatives of the 1%, Sinclair & Co. are so absurdly wealthy that they think nothing of gambling away vast quantities of cash on ridiculous bets. In one scene, Sinclair’s butler Mr. Grisham (Dave Thomas) asks a high-priced escort how much a bizarre request will cost. Upon hearing her answer, the wealthy gamblers emerge and pay off the colleague whose guess was closest.
Later on, while flying to Colorado, Sinclair has his pilot swerve the plane violently and the rich men bet on which of them will vomit first. In a deleted scene, they can be seen playing Monopoly with real money. This colossal waste of wealth is not too far removed from the reckless speculation of the parasitical American financial class that led to the economic collapse of 2008.
Still stuck on the stairs, one of the competitors suddenly hatches a brilliant idea: why don’t all the teams just go to Silver City together and split the money up evenly? Couldn’t they avoid in-fighting if they simply banded together and distributed the wealth among themselves equally? At that point, Pollini, who had been trailing, steps over the heap of people and continues onwards, gleefully proclaiming, “I am in a race! I am in a race!”
Instantly the participants renew their struggle to grab all the loot for themselves. The brief flirtation with a socialist approach has given way once more to the Hobbesian war of all against all that is typical of capitalism – an individualist ethos that may be summarized as, “I’ve got mine, so fuck everybody else.”
Near the end, the political subtext of the film sharpens once more. As the teams arrive at the Silver City train station, they all reach the locker at the same time and struggle to be the first to use their keys. When one finally opens the locker, they find the duffel bag of money missing.
It seems that the butler Grisham has run off with the call girl under the mistaken belief that she liked him for him, and not the $2 million he was leading her to. Despite their similar class interests, the bourgeoisie remains a den of thieves who will happily stab each other in the back to increase their own personal profits; Bernie Madoff is only the most famous recent example of this phenomenon.
Chasing after the duffel bag of money while it hangs from a cow that is dangling from a hot air balloon (don’t ask), the frantic racers suddenly crash through a wall and find themselves onstage at a charity concert hosted by Smash Mouth that instantly dates the film. They finally gain their prize and start helping themselves to wads of cash.
In a misunderstanding, the charity believes the competitors have come to donate the money to feed hungry children. The competitors initially react with horror and attempt to correct this impression. However, the heartfelt expressions of gratitude by the charity’s organizer, as well as a representative hungry child, soon compel all competitors to relinquish their winnings in the name of charity. This sacrifice on behalf of the needy becomes cathartic, with the former competitors smiling and/or pumping their fists in the air.
But Nick isn’t finished. Seizing on the presence of Sinclair and his cronies, he announces that the affluent gamblers have volunteered to donate double the total amount of money raised by the charity. The numbers on a display board increase at a dizzying speed; millions of dollars which were previously hoarded or pissed away on useless speculation are forcibly redistributed to serve real and desperate social needs.
It is this expropriation of wealth that makes Rat Race more than just a frivolous comedy. The presence of starving children puts the main characters’ individual pursuit of riches into perspective. Capitalism, by its very nature, leads to poverty and vast inequality. As Che Guevara noted, the central myth of “free enterprise” – that anyone can become wealthy if they work hard enough – is usually defended with the example of figures like John D. Rockefeller, while conveniently ignoring the amount of misery that must be created in order for a Rockefeller to exist.
By their own initiative, Sinclair and his friends would never have used that money to serve positive social ends. It was only when Nick put them in an impossible position at the charity concert that they were forced to smile and wave as a portion of their wealth was taken from them. This is the point at which right-wing ideologues would start ranting and raving about the injustice of somebody stealing their hard-earned money (Who earned it for them? The Sinclair gang don’t look like 9 to 5 types).
Wealth redistribution is precisely what happens at the end of Rat Race. And what are the results? A huge number of children who would have gone to bed hungry, or worse, will now be fed. Lives have been saved – and the only casualty is the relative freedom of shiftless billionaires to gamble away huge amounts of money other people earned for them. Regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the socialist subtext of Rat Race takes what would have otherwise been an unremarkable if entertaining comedy and gives it a didactic meaning to serve as a rallying cry for the proletariat.
Matt Gardner is a working journalist and supporter of the Marxist newspaper Fightback. He currently lives in Saskatchewan.