I don’t really think this is true, but perhaps the reason I return to Jon Lovitz in Rat Race is that I was once an angry rat child. Our rats were brief, mercurial creatures, and they went the way of all pets, buried by our dad under the resilient periwinkle in a corner of the backyard, as we stood there, my brother unashamed to straight-up cry, me squirreling my eye contact away from anyone.
The rats had been meant as a diversion. The year of their acquisition, and classically quick deaths, was the last real year of my childhood. We were to move from San Diego to a place called Urbana, in East-Central Illinois, our parents told us. But our house, which sat near the highway, on the unglitzy side of steep hill, wasn’t selling. Meanwhile, none of us wanted to be in it. In the remaining months after the announcement, we always seemed to be away, in one fashion or another: my mom daily, on walks longer and longer into the evening, and my dad and me and my brother to the 18-plex Regal Edwards theater in Mira Mesa, where we mashed unsavory medleys of G and PG-13 movies back-to-back (Chicken Run, What Women Want) with the understanding that we were simply killing time. When we returned, our mom had brought things back from her walk, as if to repopulate our rooms, which were now mostly boxed up: crow feathers and cuttings of other people’s geraniums.
Somehow, my mom somehow trapped a rabbit on one of these walks. She brought it back cradled in her elbows, a rodential Pietà. Everything about the rabbit was ridiculous: sitting in our living room, she was glowing all-white but for Liza Minelli-style black eyeliner markings, and was clearly someone’s lost pet. Daisy escaped occasionally and hid inside the dishwasher. When she ran, I felt an intense embarrassment for her, all that desperate flopping. She died of something stomach-related within a month. My dad sighed. Took the pink towel that covered her cage from the eyes of prospective home buyers, and used it as a shroud. I stared at the white little rabbit paw sticking out, telling myself, for some reason lost to time, you must remember this moment. A few months later, I would see a scene in Rat Race that reminded me of the ongoing feeling of this time: Seth Green and Vince Vileuf, idiot brothers, begin to involuntarily winch their car, with them in it, up a radar tower. It’s a slow-motion car chase they put into motion and can’t control. Things pass, things move, things die, things change, at a relentless pace. It was the fact that I couldn’t control such processes, but was rather stuck inside of them, with an obviousness I resented, that began to preoccupy me.
That year, 2000, I nurtured a deep and abiding feeling whose shape I couldn’t exactly see. It didn’t center on anything, though plenty was going on: the Big Move was impending, my grandfather was slowly and mysteriously dying, and my mom was developing a disability in her hands which spread into her arms, curtailing her ability, eventually, to read, drive, cook, trap future rodents. Retrospectively, I feel certain that the feeling was actually a murky sadness, which I concealed with a thick plaster of rage. I resolved not to cry until I was eighteen, and, somehow, I didn’t. Instead, I developed a righteousness, trumpet-like at times, which provided me a kind of internal music I wouldn’t let anyone else hear. I became suspicious of those people who seemed to march forward without a similar score.
Touching down in Urbana, heading to the car where my dad sat waiting for us, I couldn’t seem to control my venom for the place where, actually, my dad had grown up. “This is disgusting,” I remember saying, secretly close to tears. “What is this smell?” My mom told me to just cool it already. We were all nervous. To an un-Midwestern nose, yes, the smell was at best unusual, but I remember it now with deep fondness, even craving: the rancid yogurt of the chalky green acorns, the bitter mulch of the serious gardeners, and the pig farms to the south, combining to create a summertime aroma of seemingly everlasting fertility, in which things grew steadily.
Indeed, in those early days in Urbana, which overlapped with the immediate aftermath of 9/11, my own anger found an oceanic welcoming. The Tires Plus erected the largest American flag I’ve ever seen, still, and it rippled there for years, through the seasons, as the hoary clods of packed parking lot snow formed and then began to melt, and the witch hazels began to bloom. Everyone else here seemed to be angry too, about any number of often opposing things, on all scales—9/11, the Iraq War, a predatory track coach, Cheney, Katrina, and the phalanx of vicious wild turkeys who aggressively roamed the streets at dawn, eventually becoming the subjects of a series of handwringing editorials in the News-Gazette. David Foster Wallace was from here, and wrote about the sudden blossoming of yard flags that year. Roger Ebert, too, was from here, and wrote such beautifully scathing reviews that I devoured and reread for years a compilation of them called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. Now, I understand that the anger wasn’t specific to the place—it was more specific to the time.
And then I saw Rat Race. The film was showing in a small theater on the edge of town, and a group of us went for my thirteenth birthday. I had gathered together a small group of tentative new Illinoisan friends, whom I called, behind their backs and to my patient family, “People That I Am Aware Of,” or PTIAAOs. I was a snob, obviously, to a degree I almost can’t bear now to think about, but not so fully that I could compose a grammatically better acronym. But the snobbishness kind of floated away, in the theater, temporarily: here was Cuba Gooding Jr. badly pantomiming childbirth, and Wayne Knight pondering murdering Rowan Atkinson for his heart. My attraction was immediate, unloosed and as obvious as the movie itself. In the theater, we were gasping like fish on the riverbank. One of us spilled a bag of peanut M & Ms and they rolled loudly across the floor; to us, freshly teenaged and frightened of actual, intentional rebellion, this public accident during Rat Race became a point of pride.
Briefly: the film is a caper, a treasure hunt. The characters, while many and briefly drawn, are united in their desperation, often shorthanded in reviews to “greed.” It is this feeling which gives them an immediate, probably otherwise impossible depth. An eccentric billionaire, John Cleese has planted a treasure in the desert, and a crew of people surge to find it, while Cleese and his cronies bet on their failure. The contestants include Lovitz as a harried dad with a gambling problem, Kathy Najimy as his long-suffering wife, Rowan Atkinson bouncing beanily around as an Italian narcoleptic, Amy Smart as “a helicopter pilot with rage issues,” Cuba Gooding Jr. as a bespoilt referee, and Seth Green in his typical role. There’s also Whoopi Goldberg, Breckin Meyer, Wayne Knight, and many more. In this way, Rat Race is gouty in its generosity, flattening the viewer under a cavalcade of semi-celebrity, a total inanity of plot, and even, in the ending scene, a concert rendition of Smashmouth’s “All Star.” The feeling of 2001—a fermenting, ridiculous anger, mixed with an idiotic glee—is pressed down upon Rat Race’s audience. And watching now, I feel slightly queasy. I recognize myself there in most of the characters, or, rather, while watching most of the characters, I can see myself at age thirteen, watching and loving the breakneck speed of their desperation, which felt like a delicious exaggeration of my own.
I saw it each subsequent year, in September, for my birthday party, with the select PTIAAOs who graduated into friends. The movie, too, morphed. It became one of those repeats that inscribe themselves, so that years down the line, in completely unrelated situations, snippets or dialogue or Jon Lovitz himself breaks to the surface of my mind, and I wonder a little trepidatiously about how informed my life is by the film. Today, when my mouth makes an accidentally flatulent noise, I think involuntarily to a bit of Rat Race blooper reel, where Lovitz apologizes for a similar error: “sorry,” he says with an odd menace, “my lip has gas.” (This is a repeat “joke” for Lovitz, who has said it almost as a catchphrase throughout his career, always seemingly extemporaneously.) Today, nearly twenty years after my first viewing, I know the film’s words before they are spoken, and can trace on my lips the movement of Rowan Atkinson’s tongue across his own as he nervously surveys the heart Wayne Knight is transporting to some poor bastard in Topeka. I know why this movie “spoke” to me, and perhaps why it “spoke” to enough viewers to become a hit, placing just behind American Pie 2 and Rush Hour 2 in its opening weekend: every side character in the movie, and that is to say, every character, is obvious, needy, angry.
A real rat race has no beginning and no end. No rats. Just scurrying humans being slowly crushed by mundanity, and racing to find either cheese or an exit, neither of which are forthcoming. Jon Lovitz, I think, understands this somewhat. His roles, usually either the conman or the conned, seem to be undergirded by this knowledge. I don’t think the screenwriter of Rat Race understood it. “The fun of the movie,” the screenwriter recalled, “is that these ordinary folks...find themselves in the most embarrassing, surreal, and outrageous situations. But they still plug along gamely.” Plugging along gamely is not, I think, what the characters in Rat Race are doing—they’re all surging for an out, Jon Lovitz (as gambler Randy Pear) perhaps most desperately of all.
Like a dead pet or a cross-country move becoming the ostensible reason for deep rage or a piece of writing, Lovitz often feels obvious and shallow. But that’s the point, the obviousness. I saw, in that first year of my adolescence, in Randy Pear, something deeply, deeply funny to me, about the anger that can come from seeing the sadnesses inside life and not having any other choice than to move forward. Such a theme would be unpalatable delivered in any way other than slapstick. As Randy Pear, Lovitz is so hell-bent on finding another life for himself and his family that he gambles away their savings, drives them furiously across country in search of Cleese’s millions, and forces his daughter, who he wraps in a blanket, to defecate out the back window of their car. Could it be more obvious, more tragic? More embarrassing to find yourself laughing at, in recognition?
There is no moral center to Rat Race, and I have no idea about Lovitz’s moral center. Rat Race is not exactly a political movie, though class division is, I suppose, lurking somewhat central. And Jon Lovitz is not a political comedian. But there is something to the roles he often plays, which feel perversely honest, despite usually being cheats or conmen. In much of his acting work, Lovitz always seems to be sitting on the edge of something deeper and darker and meaner. His recurring characters from his younger days on SNL and elsewhere tend to have sharp edges: the devil on Andrew Dice Clay’s shoulder, the self-appointed president of Compulsive Liars Anonymous. Today, he pops up in semi-unexpected places to deliver a bit of the humor we expect from him, in film cameos (Grown Ups 2), voice acting gigs (Bark Ranger), or in commercials (avocados). In 2006, The Onion poked rather meanly at Lovitz’s acting choices after he took a lucrative job doing commercials for Subway, joking that Lovitz couched his sell-out in the name of greater artistic freedom (“For example, without Subway, the opportunity to voice a talking penguin in the new Bob Saget animated mockumentary Farce Of The Penguins might never have come up.”). The joke here is blatant: that Lovitz is a kind of “sandwich artist” of acting, that is, his art involves no real artistry at all.
And yet it’s hard not to think that Lovitz is in on his own obviousness, that he is perhaps playing himself playing a role. In 2000, while Rat Race was presumably being filmed, Lovitz showed up in a $33 million advertising campaign for the Yellow Pages, as the author of the phonebook, which was actually, Lovitz insisted, a groundbreaking tome of experimental writing. In this strange series of commercials, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet and critic Charles Bernstein, who himself, in real life, has taken serious poetic inspiration from the phonebook, acts in awe of Lovitz-the-writer’s artistry, and interviews him at length. In a bit of B-roll, Bernstein asks Lovitz why he keeps writing the mammoth book year after year. It’s clear the actors are improvising, trying to find a bit of gold they can use. “Why don’t you stop? Why didn’t you stop with 1985 or 1995 or 1998? Why do you keep going each year and do another edition?” Lovitz takes a few long seconds to answer. “The money,” he finally says, with a gentle crassness that is trademark. It’s not the answer that Bernstein, or us, is really expecting, but with it, Lovitz cuts to the truth, to what we suspect—that this is no artful, austere, experimental project after all. That he has found an exit from the rat race almost by chance, and taken it. But it’s also the obvious answer. Couldn’t there have been something slightly funnier to reach for, and why didn’t he reach for it? I’ve spent hours watching this series of commercials, trying to figure out what, exactly, is being said, and why the “con” of experimental literature was used as a vehicle to sell the Yellow Pages, which today I can’t figure out if I should italicize (literature) or keep in standard formatting (obsolete object with which you can keep a door open, bruiselessly beat a body, or use as mulch). The men walk slowly, over and over, along an oak-lined path, somewhere near Lovitz’s writing cabin, and Bernstein, as interviewer, repeatedly gives Lovitz chances to transcend, occasionally, what is expected:
Do you feel you’ve been fully able to express yourself as a person, as a writer, through the work?
I feel a great sadness pervading the work.
Well, and ironically, I think it’s when you’re looking up “Clowns.”
I would have thought it was more of an underground thing. Notes from the Underground thing. The cabin seems to be kind of a false front for you.
Um...and yet, no. And yet, no.
The creation of ambient language in it is extraordinary.
Thank you. Glad you picked that up.
In his reluctance to actually take the joke further, to meet Bernstein, the actual poet, where Bernstein is trying to go—high literature—Lovitz, the fake writer, insists that there is no such thing. And that he isn’t, or refuses to be, fluent in it. While Lovitz plays a literary conman, he’s also showing us, repeatedly, insistently, the con. It’s the ambiguity—the question of who is in on the joke, Lovitz or Bernstein, and then, more broadly, what exactly the joke is—that makes it at all interesting, and that presses surprised laughter out of me at the idiocy of these commercials, which are so very commercial in their understanding of what being a writer looks like: a cabin in the woods, long walks under the oaks, crumpled drafts thrown into waste baskets. Such deep obviousness, in other words, leads us to the lame question Bernstein would never ask, but which Lovitz seems to be begging us to wonder, about him, about his career: is this all just...meta?
Unusually in Rat Race, then, Lovitz is not the conman, but is in the class of the conned, along with nearly every other character. Groomed and betted on, these rats are racing towards a treasure they all desperately want and need. It’s nothing to John Cleese; for him, watching the characters’ desperation is the entertainment. But I remember how quickly, watching this film for the first time, I focused on Lovitz, not because his desperation was funny in itself, but because it felt the most obvious. Unlike the other characters in Rat Race, Randy Pear belongs to a nuclear family. They are all different ages and versions of hapless and earnest. They are his extra weight, and they are also his conspirers. It’s after a concussive headbutt from Kathy Najimy that Lovitz finally pulls over, and the family stops at a rural Barbie museum, which is quickly revealed to be a shrine to Klaus Barbie, infamous Nazi and the “Butcher of Lyon.” The Jewish family stands there stunned, blinking. The Nazi museum docents have the glassiness and practiced spiels of any other museum docents, and Lovitz’s horrified eyes go wide. We have to get out of here, he’s thinking. It’s one of the weirder scenes of the movie, one I remember actually feeling discomfort with. We understand the Pears’ subsequent seizure of Hitler’s car, parked conveniently out front, and then their giddy driving of it, Najimy trying on Eva Braun’s lipstick, Lovitz of course burning his mouth on Hitler’s cigarette lighter and suddenly sounding aggressively German, as an act of unintentional historical revenge. The Pears are enjoying a small and gleeful victory, and we tentatively enjoy it alongside them. No one is angry, desperate, hurt. Freed from the obviousness of that predicament, they’re somewhat happy, though after a while, Najimy looks ready to be done. In most other parts of this movie, we are John Cleese, watching and relishing from above as individual contestants flop around in hopes of winning something. There’s usually a cruelty to our position, our view. This rare moment, as tasteless as it is, shows a victory of a different kind—all four people floating down the highway in a stolen car, heading somewhere good. (That somewhere turns out to be a Smashmouth concert, in which Lovitz soloes on Hitler’s harmonica.)
“Does your book reflect reality, or is it changing reality?” asks Bernstein, as the men walk under tall oaks, in that B-roll for the Yellow Pages commercial. I could, as a fresh teenager, have asked the same about Rat Race, the frustration it seemed to carry, which reflected and funneled my own. And then the occasional earnestness: the people scampering across the Western desert in slapstick hopes that they could find something better. The older I became, the more I saw signs of anger, of frustration, of sadness in my own family members. A perfect life, an exit, was not possible. As the Rat Race characters heightened their mania, we graduated from rodents, got a dog with a penchant for digging up poisonous spring bulbs and having her stomach pumped.
“I’d have to say,” answers Lovitz, slowly, considering his words, for he is about to speak at length in a way he has so far avoided, “that I think it does both, because the book is real, but by the end of the year, you’re going to get a new book. It’s not going to be the same. Businesses close. Businesses open. People move. In that sense, it’s a very moving book.” Ha ha. Such idiocy, but for some reason I have to laugh. My family kept moving, even after the Big Move. The dog died. I’m not angry about either of these things. If anything, the rat race does kind of dull after time. You don’t plug along gamely, necessarily, but you can start to see the walls, and the small ways out.
When I traveled, more than fifteen years after first viewing Rat Race, to New Mexico to try to write about a treasure hunt, I thought I’d seen it before, in that film I had memorized as an angry rat child. But this was, supposedly, real life. An elderly art dealer, Forrest Fenn, claimed he’d sequestered somewhere in the vast American West a large chest stuffed with incalculable treasure. He then self-published his memoirs, which contained a poem bearing vague clues to the treasure, clues so open-ended they left room for vastly different interpretations. It was just like Cleese in Rat Race, I thought, and wondered if there was a room somewhere full of rich men betting on the contestants. I lurked on the message boards. There was, all over, that righteousness, that belief I myself had carried as a younger person, that my interpretation of the world was unwaveringly correct. Here, it seemed obvious that this could not, en masse, be the case. People began to commit their entire lives to their particular version of the hunt. Several died out there, in the width of the West, alone, because their interpretations of Fenn’s poem had led them into danger, into roaring rapids or canyons that turned frigid at night. I thought of Rat Race incessantly while researching this story. But no one in that movie, which posited its treasure hunt as both joking and all-serious, had been truly hurt. Fenn’s hunt has been going on for years, and continues today. Someone new died just last month, out searching.
In New Mexico, in June, at the festival called Fennboree, I talked to some of the treasure hunters, contestants far more numerous than the cast of Rat Race. They came bearing their hunting experiences from the years past, as well as coleslaw and tortilla chips to share. Here, at the picnic grounds in the state park, any righteousness the hunters could display online was tempered by the fact that they were now surrounded by others, who had other interpretations of the poem, of the reality of the hunt. Of whether or not, even, it was real. I stayed mostly on the edges, because I felt a deep discomfort, confronted with a real version of my old favorite movie, and this one was missing any humor at all.
One hunter produced hickory syrup, which he said had a smokyhoneynutty flavor. He wore a neon green shirt, which he said was the color of new hickory leaves. He spoke to me for hours about the many uses of hickory, and how to make acorn flour.
A gentle man named Iron Will who worked in an explosive ammunitions plant in Virginia told me this: “I am the front runner. Everyone believes I’m the frontrunner. But also 70% of people believe they’re the frontrunner.”
“I work on it every day,” a woman who lived in Las Vegas told me. “I love it. Some people would say that I’m addicted, but I’m captivated. I feel like I know where it is but I can’t retrieve it myself. I tried last year. I didn’t make it. I don’t know what it is—I got dehydrated, my leg muscle was twitching so bad it was flying out from under me. My whole family was there. My nephew firefighter called it.” They walked back down the mountain. I pictured the Pears on the highway, exhausted from driving, or in the Las Vegas motel room, the kids jumping between the beds and cracking their skulls together.
And then there was a man who had a fake name written in purple marker on his nametag. By way of introduction, he looked at me and asked “You know it’s all a scam, right?” In the next few months, he showed me his solution under pains of total secrecy. We drove deep into the search territory together. There was stone and sky, darkness and light, a dense and strange smell. What I can say about it is that this place made complete sense, and also none at all. There was no treasure there and there was also, he said, a symbol for the treasure.
The characters were endless. They were all minor. Most had the same weight as any other. None were celebrities, stars of hunt—how could you be, until someone finally found the treasure? None were angry, exactly, but there was a palpable and uniform feeling, and it was not good. Mortgages had been taken out. Cross-country moves undertaken to get closer to the search territory. Marriages strained and ended. Jon Lovitz was nowhere in sight, but he was also everywhere, his outsized mania undergirding this event. There was nothing for me here as a writer, unless I wanted to turn out the latest version of a story I’d read about Fenn’s treasure in countless magazines, each iteration of the story using a different staff of a three or four people with various backstories bringing them all to the hunt, which itself was always described in thrilling, adventurous, quirky terms. “I’ve seen things I’d never seen before,” went an oft-repeated statement in these articles. I asked people about that, about what exactly they’d seen. A nest of hundreds of mating snakes under a boulder in Montana, one told me. A waterfall of lavender diamonds pouring out from a rock into cupped, outstretched hands, another said. Exaggeration was everywhere, but it was not slapstick, exactly. And the following year, almost none of the same people were in attendance. Because of forest fires across the West, Fennboree took place in a taupe hotel conference room on the edge of Santa Fe. It was a different cast, less competitive. There were rumors, of which I had read whispers online, that the hunt wasn’t real, that there was no treasure. Or that, unbeknownst to the rest of us, someone had already found the treasure, and everyone was searching in vain. We ate chili for a few hours in the hotel room and filled out little trivia games.
The end of Rat Race is, among true fans, nearly universally understood as a disappointment. It’s the note of the film that rings most saccharine, out of pace with the rest of this ribald entity. Here, as a wrap-up, is the idea we’ve been dreading and half-expecting, an easy and obvious idea we’ve been told again and again, and a lie: that we are greedy for wanting something different than what we have been given. All of our characters blow onto the stage of a Smashmouth concert together. They end up donating Cleese’s money to a charity for needy children, and then they sing along to a rendition of “All Star.” It’s questionable if Whoopi Goldberg knows the lyrics. Rowan Atkinson does admittedly delightful high kicks. Jon Lovitz soloes on his newfound harmonica. And then every side character, in their turn, jumps onto a sea of waiting, waving hands, even more extras holding up their palms as if waiting to be called on, as Smashmouth bellows their long, queasy line, from the one song that made them famous: we could all use a little change.
Lucy Schiller is a writer from Urbana, IL and was recently the Provost's Fellow in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. Her work has recently appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, The New Yorker, Counterpunch, The Iowa Review, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. She's at work on a “comedic” novel about temporary employment in higher education and on a nonfiction manuscript about the musician Arthur Russell. In the early winter of 2010, she won the band the Bowerbirds' international contest in food sculpture with a bread and icing-based likeness of Cinda, her first guinea pig.