Ruthless People (1986)

11 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If I had to pick my favorite Danny DeVito role, it would probably be rich businessman Sam Stone in “Ruthless People.” DeVito plays the villain that you love to hate—a man so ruthless that he would even cheer at the thought of his own wife dead. In fact, that’s what he’s talking about in the very first scene of “Ruthless People”—he’s telling his mistress Carol (Anita Morris) that he’s planning to swiftly do away with his annoying wife Barbara (Bette Midler). We find out that Sam married her just for her money, and if he kills her, he’ll gain her late father’s inheritance.

This is a vile man. He’s selfish, shallow, and ruthless. But he’s so earnest and passionate in his schemes and purposes that you can’t help but admire DeVito for making this villainous character so entertaining.

“Ruthless People” has the comic premise of Sam’s wife actually being kidnapped before Sam has a chance to do her in (he planned to fill her with chloroform and hurl her off a cliff). He gets a call from the kidnappers who threaten to kill her if he doesn’t pay the ransom. Watch his face as he listens to every detail and knows that his wife could be killed if he doesn’t meet their demands—this is his dream come true! He’s not supposed to tell the police; he tells the police and the story hits the news. He’s told to pay the ransom; he doesn’t.

But the kidnappers, as it turns out, are inane at their title. They’re actually a nice suburban couple (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) who kidnap Sam’s wife Barbara for reasons of ruthlessness. Reinhold’s Ken decides that they both need to be ruthless to succeed in this world, and holds a grudge against Sam for stealing spandex designs from his wife Sandy (Slater) and passing them off as his own, and becoming very rich because of them. Now they want their share and hold Barbara hostage until Sam pays the ransom…. Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

This is a simple idea of a nagging wife being kidnapped and her husband doesn’t want her back. It’s stretched out into a very funny comedy with charismatic acting and a sharp screenplay brough to life by the three-man directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker—the same guys who made “Airplane.” This script is full of funny jokes and does a good job of making the story be as complicated as it can with this premise, just barely going over-the-top with its conclusion (a standard car chase). I don’t want to give away most of the gags, because that takes away the elements of surprise in this movie.

Bette Midler’s Barbara has a great share of screen time, and I’m sorry I forgot to talk about her. Midler is hilarious in this movie, making her character as stubborn as possible while being held by these two nice losers. She starts out as a shouting whiner (which I know you’d expect, since we first see her in a bag and her mouth is gagged), and then delights in teasing her captors, sometimes intimidating them by saying she’s going to turn them in later, and driving them crazy. Later on, though, she does soften up and even befriends Sandy, and she delivers the funniest line in the movie when she realizes that the ransom number has decreased. I won’t write what it is; just see the movie. Trust me—it’s worth it.

An amusing subplot involves Sam’s mistress Carol as she attempts to blackmail Sam by having him give her all the money, or else she turns him in for killing Barbara. But due to a series of hilarious misunderstandings, she and her buffoonish lover (Bill Pullman, hilarious) find themselves in many unsuccessful attempts to do so. That is all I am going to say about that. Period.

One failing in “Ruthless People,” besides the conclusion, is that there is no dueling confrontation between DeVito and Midler. We only see them together once, to deliver a weak punchline to the story, and I would have liked to see them really have it out with each other.

With some big laughs, game performances, and a very funny screenplay by Dale Launer, “Ruthless People” is a goofy, hilarious movie about…ruthless people. They’re ruthless, but they’re likable and memorable. DeVito is a joy to watch as the lovable villain, Midler is suitably stubborn, Reinhold and Slater are pretending to be ruthless but are truthfully nice enough for us to like them, and Morris and Pullman are hilariously idiotic. They help make “Ruthless People” a very funny movie.

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