Synopsis: In this fiendishly funny comedy from the creators of Airplane!, loathsome millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is ruthless. How ruthless? When his shrill wife Barbara (Bette Midler) is nabbed by inept kidnappers (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater), Sam cries tears of joy and refuses to pay the ransom. And when the abductors threaten to kill the abrasive heiress, Sam takes immediate action – he celebrates! Ruthless People. Raucous… outlandish… one of the top box office hits of the year!
Ruthless People 8.0
eyelights: the superb cast. the sharp script. the flawless direction.
eyesores: the dated opening credits. the severely dated soundtrack.
“Do I understand this correctly? I’m being marked down? I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!”
‘Ruthless People’ is one of those films that fails to register when I think of Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams. In fact, it’s a movie I hardly ever think about. But, given that I’ve been going through their films of late, I sort of rediscovered it while reading up on their respective filmographies. I decided that I might as well give it another go, even though I’d seen it twice before.
I was surprised to find out that, although it’s not nearly as classic, original or innovative as their other films, ‘Ruthless People’ is possibly their most solid effort of all.
Granted, they haven’t made a lot of films together, but collectively they often fall into that sophomoric, spoof/slapstick genre: ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie‘, ‘Airplane!‘, ‘Police Squad!‘, ‘Top Secret!‘, ‘The Naked Gun’ 1–2–3, ‘Hot Shots!’ 1+2 and so forth. ‘Ruthless People’ is a dark comedy, something that was more up star Danny DeVito’s alley – he would soon direct ‘Throw Momma From the Train’ and ‘The War of the Roses‘.
This was the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams team’s fourth and last co-directing gig. As far as I’m concerned, it’s by far their more cohesive effort of the bunch. I’m a huge fan of their work, but there has often been some sloppiness in the direction, no doubt due to inexperience and having to work as a trio. ‘Ruthless People’, in comparison, is solid through and through. Oh sure, there are a few goofs, but hardly any, and less than most pictures do.
What makes the film, though, is the way that Dale Launer (of ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ and ‘My Cousin Vinny’ fame) wove together all these twisted behaviours and plot convolutions into an almost seamless concoction, all the while injecting a healthy dose of humour to the proceedings – something that lightened what could otherwise be a pretty grim film.
‘Ruthless People’ is about the kidnapping of a tycoon’s spouse. The couple behind the crime are doing it for revenge, having been scammed out of untold fortunes by the husband. Little did they know that he was planning on murdering his wife anyway – so while they expect their death threat to force him to pony up 500K, he actually does everything he can for them to follow through.
Complicating things even further is the fact that his lover is planning to blackmail him. Aware of his plan to murder his wife, she decides to get her moronic boyfriend to film him in flagrante delicto – except that the murder doesn’t take place, so her clueless bf ends up recording the Police Chief with a hooker. And that’s when things start to get complicated!
From that point onward, it’s just one misunderstanding after the other, pushing everyone closer and closer to the edge. Making matters worse, the kidnappers are stuck with the spouse and don’t know what to do with her – especially since she’s insupportable. They hadn’t planned on keeping her so long, let alone having to deal with her incessant streams of abuse!
Frankly, I’m impressed with the way that Launer put all the pieces in place. It sometimes stretches the boundaries of credulity, but it remains relatively realistic – within the framework of the piece (i.e. in similar circumstances, with those personality traits and motivations, it’s plausible that anyone would react the way that these people do).
For the first time, Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams don’t overwhelm the material with gags and other distractions. While this technique is completely suitable -and much appreciated- in their spoof films, it would have deterred from the comedy here, which is entirely rooted in dialogue and performances. Thankfully, the co-director let the cast do their magic.
And what a cast it is. Individually, I’m not a fan of any of them (well, I’m a mild fan of DeVito, admittedly), but collectively they work so well together, much like the cast of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ worked so terrifically as a group. Whoever did the casting paired up the couple perfectly, but also played the individuals off of each other extremely well. Fantastic stuff!
Sam Stone: “I had to live with that squealing, corpulent little toad all these years. God, I hate that woman. I – I – I hate the way she licks stamps! I hate her furniture! And I hate that little sound she makes when she sleeps.”
- Danny DeVito is at his devilish best as Stone, a sleezy businessman who married a woman he loathes for her money – and never got any of it. He’s desperate, but it turns into jubilation when he finds out that someone else has taken care of her for him. DeVito makes him smart, overconfident, and loathsome – but so much fun. It’s one of his greatest roles.
Barbara Stone: “YOU’VE FUCKED WITH THE WRONG PERSON! My husband does business with the Mafia! When they track you down, you, your entire family, everyone you ever KNEW will all get chainsaw enemas!”
- Bette Midler plays the kidnap victim, an entitled, snobby witch who lacks sophistication and education. I’m not a fan of Midler’s but she broaches the transformation from irritable and bellicose to reflective and strategically-minded perfectly. I couldn’t even imagine someone else sinking their teeth into this part as admirably as she did.
Ken Kessler: “I mean, what the hell’s the point of being a decent person when no-one is? Let’s be assholes and get rich!”
- Judge Reinhold will always be Billy from ‘Beverley Hills Cop’ to me. I’ve seen him in plenty of other films, but he can’t seem to affect any other expression but affability convincingly – and when he tries (as in ‘Gremlins‘) it feels out of place. Here he does both, starting off as the wannabe bad-@$$ kidnapper, but soon showing his true colours. He’s superb as Ken.
Sandy Kessler: “No matter what I do, there’s nothing I can say… she just tears into me! She hates me.”
Ken Kessler: “Sandy, you’re her kidnapper. She’s supposed to hate you.”
- I had a serious crush on Helen Slater as a kid. After seeing her in ‘Supergirl’ and ‘The Secret of My Success’, I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever. As an actress, however, she seemed so-so. Here she plays up Sandy’s nervousness just right; I could totally see the character, even if I still found her subpar in comparison to the rest of the cast. But, gosh… I wish that ‘Supergirl’ had been a good picture and, thus, a success. Even if vacant (it was her first film!), she was the perfect Supergirl.
Carol Dodsworth: “You get that tape of Sam Stone finishing off his wife, and that man will give us anything we want for the rest of his life!”
- Anita Morris is perfect as a manipulative floozy: she’s dolled up just enough to look fake, but not so much that she’s no longer sexy, and she walks that fine line between cartoon and cliché. What’s terrific is that she gives Carol enough smarts that we can sort of respect her. For a con artist, that is. I’d love to see what else Morris has been up to, to see if she’s typecast or if she can hold up in other roles.
Earl Mott: “This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him.”
- Bill Pullman is too goofy to be the President of the United States (i.e. ‘ID4’), and his goofiness comes through as Earl, Carol’s moronic accomplice. It was his first role and it shows – he’s by far the weak link in this cast. He’s amusing, but hardly credible – although there is no doubt that Earl is a complete dunderhead. So I guess he did a decent job of it.
The only thing that doesn’t hold up at all are the risibly bad opening animated credits, which are a total mess, as well as the super dated soundtrack. The Mick Jagger theme song, in particular, is a dismal piece off pop trash; it unsurprisingly failed on the charts and it is said that ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic considered scrapping his planned spoof of the song, before ultimately going ahead. The rest of the soundtrack barely fares any better: the only remotely listenable piece is Billy Joel’s “Modern Woman”.
But, all in all, ‘Ruthless People’ stands the test of time: even some 25 years on, it still delivers the laughs. Sure, it looks like an ’80s motion picture and it feels like an ’80s motion picture, but there’s more to it than one would ever imagine. I’ve completely reconsidered it and I would say that it’s one of my favourite films of the whole Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams output (solo or otherwise). It’s an excellent black comedy and I would not hesitate to recommend it to most people – it’s relatively innocuous and can be ruthlessly funny.
Date of viewing: July 21, 2013