A couple cheated by a vile businessman kidnaps his wife in retaliation, not knowing that their enemy is delighted that they did.A couple cheated by a vile businessman kidnaps his wife in retaliation, not knowing that their enemy is delighted that they did.A couple cheated by a vile businessman kidnaps his wife in retaliation, not knowing that their enemy is delighted that they did.
Ruthless People is a relic; a true, blue unadulterated farce made by the same loons that made Airplane! (1980). Danny DeVito stars as businessman Sam Stone, the repugnant spandex mini-skirt king. In a bid to rid himself of his irritating wife, gain her $15 million fortune and rid himself of her un-house trained poodle, Sam has a surefire plan to murder her without implicating himself. He comes home to do the deed; Barbara (Midler) is nowhere to be found. The phone rings; Sam picks it up and a man on the other line informs him his wife has been kidnapped and they expect a ransom. "If you notify the police, your wife will be killed. If you notify the media, your wife will be killed." Naturally Sam is tickled pink. Thus a dozen or so fateful events and circumstances tie the lives of Sam, Barbara, the kidnappers (Reinhold and Slater), Sam's mistress (Dodsworth), her doltish Don Juan (Pullman) and a particularly nasty serial killer with mommy issues (Freeman).
The screenplay is written by the underrated Dale Launer based on an O. Henry short story. Launer's other credits include other well constructed and executed farces including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and My Cousin Vinny (1992). Ruthless People however is his first screenplay thus the story occasionally suffers from a narrative lull as well as some conspicuously dropped exposition. The characters are perilously stock, forged from the collective works of Shakespeare and Moliere and diluted to pander to 80's sensibilities. Yet despite all this, the story is reliably funny, seething with venomous cynicism and stitched together by the fun performances of Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
The direction however leaves much to be desired. A hit during its time, Ruthless People has aged about as well as Weekend at Bernie's (1989) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988). Part of it has to do with directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (known collectively as ZAZ) whom temper their knack for slapstick and anarchistic flights of fancy. Perhaps it's their desire to try something different, or perhaps it's their inability to visually translate something they didn't write themselves, but what results is so-so physical comedy; largely and disappointingly provided by Judge Reinhold's milquetoast face.
Then there's the unmistakably 80's feel of the art direction. I realize the film is supposed to take place in glitzy Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles and I realize a lot of the characters are somehow involved in high fashion but for the love of God my eyes are bleeding! The angular decor, nasty amalgamation of pastels and paisleys mixed with harsh primary colors makes it seem as if a bullet train ran into John Waters's walk-in closet. Those who lived through the eighties and decide to watch this movie 30 years later, please enjoy yourselves then go home and burn the rest of your spandex.
Making a movie like Ruthless People today would be nearly impossible. Developing a screenplay basing its humor on goofy characters and miscommunication would seem out of place in an era of near constant communication. We deal with our own miniature farces everyday to be sure; especially every time we talk past each other on social media. Yet those are not the type of misunderstanding that farce feeds on to create scenes of discomfort, double meanings and giddy hilarity. In other words your Facebook feed has nothing on Ruthless People.
- Apr 21, 2016