In a rare moment of insight toward the close of this slapstick comedy from Jerry Zucker, one of the co-creators of “Airplane!,” “Top Secret” and “Naked Gun,” the young daughter of Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz), asked by her dad if she’s enjoyed the family vacation which has turned into a chase after a couple of million bucks, sagely responds, “It’s been a living hell.” It’s a sentiment with which viewers can entirely agree, because “Rat Race” is easily one of the year’s worst movies, a woebegone attempt at an ensemble farce which Paramount Pictures could label “guaranteed laugh-free” without the slightest danger of a lawsuit.

Imagine 1963’s “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” remade by a bastard stepchild of the Farrelly Brothers, and you’ll have some idea of how dreadful this picture is. The setup is slightly different: instead of a bunch of losers battling to figure out the location of a dead mobster’s stash (all the while observed by an avuncular cop played by Spencer Tracy), we have a bunch of even bigger losers persuaded by serpentine Las Vegas casino mogul Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) to race each other to an isolated location, where the first to arrive can lay claim of two million dollars. Sinclair will profit from the competition by taking bets from high-rollers on the race, as well as anything else that pops into their minds over the duration. The participants include Pear, accompanied by his wife (Kathy Najimy) and kids; a recently-reunited mother and daughter (Whoopi Goldberg and Lani Chapman); Owen Templeton (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), an NFL ref on the outs because of an infamously bad call; Pollini (Rowan Atkinson), an Italian tourist who hitches a ride with an inept ambulance driver (Wayne Knight); the spaced-out Cody brothers (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf); and Nick (Beckin Meyer), a young lawyer who teams up with a nubile pilot named Tracy (Amy Smart).

It’s pretty obvious that these names hardly represent the constellation of comic super-stars that studded “Mad World,” but since even a cast including Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers couldn’t save Stanley Kramer’s rather elephantine opus, there was never a chance that the assembled roster of has-beens and never-wases would be able to pump a pulse into this hapless retread. Oscar winners Goldberg and Gooding probably fare worst, simply because they once had careers; the former flounces about in a grotesque fright wig, while the latter is compelled to spend most of his screen time in bug-eyed mode, and to endure prolonged periods of undress. But one’s sympathies go out more to the slumming Brits. Poor Atkinson is reduced to doing a low-rent impression of Roberto Benigni, while Cleese goes through the proceedings with a perpetual sneer, doubtlessly caused by his acute sense of smell. Of the others Meyer and Smart perhaps come off best, because they’re required to mug the least; but their safety is merely relative, because they have to suffer a perfectly wretched sequence in which an enraged Tracy undertakes a helicopter assault on her unfaithful boyfriend (Dean Cain) as he lolls about in a pool with another woman. Still, that’s nothing compared with the vile bits about a lost human heart, intended for transplanting, that Atkinson and Knight frantically stage; or Gooding’s encounters with an irate cab driver (Paul Rodriguez) and a group of “I Love Lucy” impersonators; or Green’s adventures with a cow; or the Goldberg-Chapman duo’s run-in with a crazed squirrel-lover (another overripe cameo from Kathy Bates, an Oscar-winner herself); or Lovitz’s involvement with a bunch of neo-Nazis and World War II vets. Most of the incidents in Andy Breckman’s screenplay can’t really be termed gross according to the extravagantly lenient standards of the post-“Freddy Got Fingered” cinema, but they are tasteless, crass, witless, and peculiarly dull. And when Breckman tacks on a feel-good close which transforms the racers into generous souls and insures that Sinclair and his cronies (who include Dave Thomas as the villain’s lawyer–his performance is so low-key it’s almost as though he wanted disappear from the screen) get their just comeuppance, all it proves is that he and Zucker don’t even have the courage (as Kramer did, to his credit) to keep a mean-spirited tone through to the bitter end.

Actually, one doesn’t have to sit through much of “Rat Race” to be persuaded that this is one terrible picture. The grotesque cartoon opening credits, set to John Powell’s damnably bouncy music (which, at some points, mindlessly incorporates–and thereby trashes–a few classical standards), are bad enough to forewarn you that some awful calamity is about to strike. And when the lyric obnoxiously repeated over them informs you that “Life is nothing but a slap in the face,” you should take cover. The line applies perfectly to the movie, too.