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Ruthless People (1986)

DIRECTOR: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams

CAST: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Anita Morris, Bill Pullman


Ruthless People, a product of the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams directing triumvirate behind Top Secret, Airplane, and The Naked Gun, and screenwriter Dale Launer, is a deliciously twisted and screwball little black comedy that serves up enough twists and turns to maintain a high entertainment level through a slim 90 minute runtime that doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Fans of the previous Zucker/Abrahams works shouldn’t be disappointed with what they’ve wrought here.

The premise is simple, though it soon starts spinning off in all directions.  Business mogul Sam Stone (Danny DeVito at his sleazy best) is planning the murder of his obnoxious wife Barbara (Bette Midler) to get his money-grubbing hands on her late father’s inheritance, when fate seems to intervene in the most convenient and opportune of ways.  Coming home on the day of the planned murder, chloroform in hand, Sam gets a phone call from the kidnappers who’ve snatched his wife and leave instructions for a ransom drop and a strict warning not to contact the police or media, lest Barbara be summarily executed.  For a pleasantly surprised Sam, it seems things have just gotten a whole lot easier: all he has to do is ignore all of their instructions, sit back, and let them do his dirty work for him.  But it turns out the kidnappers, actually a mild-mannered couple named Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater) whom Sam ripped off in a past business deal, are not exactly hardened criminals, and can barely keep the pissed-off Barbara under control, let alone have the heart to kill her.  Throw in Sam’s mistress Carol (Anita Morris), who is planning to blackmail him with the help of her dim-bulb boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman), the cops (Art Evans, Clarence Felder), the police chief (William G. Schilling) who gets cornered in an embarrassing situation, and a mad slasher (J.E. Freeman) prowling the neighborhood, and it’s not clear which of these bumbling “ruthless people” will end up coming out on top.

Ruthless People is delightfully goofy, but it’s not dumb (though some—most—of the characters are).  Launer’s script keeps all the tangled plotlines going at once with a minimum of dead space, and the increasingly convoluted proceedings lead to some inspired moments, such as when Carol and the police chief have a phone conversation where they’re on decidedly different wavelengths, when the neighborhood mad slasher picks the wrong house, and when Sam is implicated in faking the (real) kidnapping and winds up getting stuck in the dilemma of trying to buy his wife back—at a discount (“I’ve been kidnapped by Kmart!” Barbara wails when she learns she’s being “marked down”).  Along the way, there’s a little—but not too much—sweetness as Barbara decides to make the most of her kidnapping by turning into an exercise freak, and eventually starts bonding with the kidnappers she initially terrorizes.  The great irony, of course, is that Ken and Sandy, the self-proclaimed “ruthless people”, are actually about the only decent people in the movie.  The movie wisely doesn’t play straight enough to get sappy, but just enough for us to root for Sam to get his comeuppance and for Ken and Sandy to ride off into the sunset.

The comic highlights of Ruthless People are Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, who get the juiciest roles in the movie and sink their teeth in with relish.  DeVito is great fun to watch when he’s allowed to go into unbridled sleazeball mode, and he tears into it with gusto.  He gets most of the best bits, including his opening increasingly angry monologue about his hatred of his wife, and the kidnappers’ first phone call, as his expression gradually shifts from confusion to a dawning blissful joy.  For her part, Midler makes her entrance kicking and screaming wrapped in a burlap bag (from which her hands burst free to start strangling Judge Reinhold), and carries on from there, terrorizing her easily rattled kidnappers with horror stories of the various methods of capital punishment that will befall them, until eventually her rage is shifted onto her husband when she realizes he’s holding up the ransom haggling over the price.  Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater’s bland niceness works effectively enough for the hopelessly less-than-ruthless Ken and Sandy (Ken puts spiders outside, and can’t bring himself to swindle a young couple at his electronics store), and a bleached-blond Bill Pullman in his film debut is amusingly dense.

Ruthless People is gleefully goofy, but it’s deliciously nasty and twisty-turny enough to not mistake comedy with vapidity, and to go on its screwball way with the earnestness of a crime caper.  Those who laughed frequently during Airplane or The Naked Gun should find much to appreciate with this latest offering from the same comedic team.

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