Movie review: ‘Ruthless People’

rpIt’s always a nice getaway in film to enjoy bad guys who are really bad, good guys who are really good and at least one stupid character who is profoundly ignorant. And all of them funny. To find them, you don’t have to look any further than “Ruthless People.” It’s a film by the Abrahams-Zucker team that is better known for their slapstick comedy films that include “Airplane!,” and is just simply a hilarious adult comedy. Surely I don’t jest – and don’t call me Shirley (a nod and wink to Zucker-Abrahams for those of you not in the know).

‘Ruthless People’
(1986; 93 minutes; rated R; directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and starring Danny DeVito, Bette Midler and Judge Reinhold)

WOW, DeVITO SHOULD BE CALLED ‘SOULLESS’ HERE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and updated links on April 1, 2016, and no, for you Abrahams-Zucker fans, I’m not kidding on this April Fool’s Day.)

If you really don’t like your spouse you might be gratified to know that in “Ruthless People,” Danny DeVito sets a mark you’ll never, ever be able to match. Never. Ever. Not only is he about to try to kill her himself, he’ll try anything to get rid of her – short of divorce which, of course, will cost him money. His ire knows no bounds as he even says, “I hate the way she licks stamps!”

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Ruthless People” is layered, funny and while leaning on somewhat puerile humor, it doesn’t insult your intelligence. In fact, it’s puerile comedy for grown-ups. So, you won’t find any camp here to get through the plot, and virtually every scene is funny and perfectly executed.

Although the laughs are frequent and side-splitting, “Ruthless People” is not like the usual film effort by co-directors Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers. They’re better known for slapstick such as “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!” (click here for my review), but “Ruthless People” is their grown-up film, if you can call it that and, sad to note, “Ruthless People” is the last joint effort by the trio. It’s too bad that it couldn’t have been a trilogy – but I don’t believe many people could have survived that many laughs.

In any case, “Ruthless People” opens with DeVito, who plays “Sam Stone,” telling his mistress (Anita Morris as “Carol Dodsworth”) how much he hates his wife “Barbara Stone,” who is played by Bette Midler. DeVito is ramping up to get rid of Midler – permanently – but comes home later to find that she’s been kidnapped.

If you could ever say it under such a circumstance, you can say here that now the hilarity begins. Such as when the kidnappers, played by Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater, tell DeVito not to call the cops or the media, the next thing you see is squad cars and TV trucks in front of his house.

Midler plays a tasteless, arrogant and repulsive wife, but manages to evolve with both her outer and inner beauty blossoming. She becomes friends with the kidnappers and when she discovers that DeVito won’t pay and the ransom price has come down, she says, “I’ve been marked down?” and then wails, “I’ve been kidnapped by Kmart.”

The kidnapping plot gets turned back on DeVito because the police discover his intent to kill Midler and then he has to work feverishly to keep her alive. The plot is great, intelligent, intricate and perfectly executed. A subplot of a local serial killer helps Midler and the kidnappers to heap vengeance on DeVito.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:

  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) DeVito is pure energy here and does it all so well and with such ease. He’s constantly being a jerk … even to strangers who accidentally misdials his telephone number. DeVito, who was also in the wonderful but forgotten “The Oh in Ohio,” is a much less compassionate man here than he was with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins” (click here for my review) but no less the crook. He also shows the acting ability of his role in “A. Confidential” (click here for my review). If you’re a DeVito fan and haven’t seen this one for some time, don’t miss watching this again. DeVito was nominated for Best Picture for the undeserving “Erin Brockovich” (he was the producer) and was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Ruthless People.”
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Midler is a bundle of energy here. She starts off as a demanding whiner who’s ready to deal out verbal and physical pain at the drop of an insult. She is absolutely flawless in changing from nasty and hate-spitting to genial and then finally to vengeful. Midler is better here in my opinion than her Oscar-nominated roles in “For the Boys” and “The Rose.” She was also great, but uncredited, for “Get Shorty” (click here for my review).

Reinhold and Slater are husband and wife kidnappers “Ken and Sandy Kessler.” Both do a good job here in each’s own ballpark: Reinhold as the somewhat naïve and compassionate stereo salesman and Slater at the vulnerable would-be fashion designer with a bone to pick with DeVito for stealing one of her designs. Check them out:

  • Emmy nominee (not for this one, of course) Reinhold is especially effective in a scene where he displays his talent for sales but also his compassion: he could sell an overpriced system to a struggling teen father to be, but reels his greed in to do the right thing. He does the affable, decent and sympathetic turn very well. Reinhold has also been in the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise as a well as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Head Office” (click here for my review).
  • Slater does vulnerable very well here. Her best scene is with Midler as she starts to cry when Midler moans about her ransom price being marked down. Otherwise, she doesn’t bring much to the role. With a final grade, I’d say that filmmakers could have done better with another actor in this role. Slater was also in “Supergirl” and “City Slickers.”

Morris and Bill Pullman, who plays the dense “Earl Mott” and, unknown to DeVito, is her real boyfriend, are trying to extort money out of DeVito. Both  navigate through hilarious subplots with verve. Here’s a closer look at both:

  • Pullman is slightly better because he does such a good job at being so completely stupid and insipid. It’s not easy to look so stupid, but he pulls it off. Pullman, who was in his first movie here, has been in “Independence Day” and was terrific in both the little-remembered “You Kill Me” with Ben Kingsley and Téa Leoni (click here for my review) as well as “While You Were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock (click here for my review).
  • Morris is under-ratedly terrific as the scheming mistress with her own agenda. She knocks this one off with aplomb and presents here character as well as any of the headliners. Morris was also in “Maria’s Lovers” and a string of TV roles before she died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 50.

The funniest running joke is where Pullman thinks he’s videotaping DeVito killing Midler but he’s actually catching someone in the act of sex in a car. Morris sends a copy of the tape to DeVito and he’s aroused by it – and she thinks he’s aroused because of murder. She then sends it to the cops, but doesn’t realize that the man in the video is the police chief.

William G. Schilling plays beleaguered “Chief Henry Benton” and is outstanding as he has to beg Morris not to make the tape public (she doesn’t realize yet that it’s not DeVito in it). The capper here is that his wife finds out when Morris and Pullman use a VCR in an electronics store to watch the tape again (and it plays on ALL the screens). Schilling has had a versatile career from TV (including the “Redd Foxx Show”) to movies such as Clint Eastwood’s “In the Line of Fire” (click here for my review).

Unlike many of the movies I’ve been reviewing, “Ruthless People” is in the box office top 10 for 1986. “Ruthless People” was ranked ninth at the domestic box office with $71.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Since it had a budget of $6 million, it was even more popular with investors. The No. 1 film was “Top Gun” with $176.7 million, while No.2 was “Crocodile Dundee” with $174.8 million. Films from that year that I’ve reviewed include Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” (sixth with $91.2 million – click here for my review), the disappointing “Tough Guys” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (43rd with $21.4 million – click here for my review) and “SpaceCamp” (74th with $9.6 million – click here for my review).

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Art Evans is a prolific supporting player with more than 100 credits and he plays “Lt. Evans” here with a workmanlike effort. Evans has also been in “Die Hard” and was absolutely outstanding in in the simply sensational “A Soldier’s Story.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The film was released under Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label, which was created so the studio could release more adult-oriented fare.”
  • Jeannine Bisignano plays the hooker in the video with the police chief and it isn’t much of a part, but it is memorable. She has also been in “My Chauffeur” and “License to Kill.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Bette Midler claims that Danny DeVito called her twice after the premiere of this film: once to congratulate her, and a second time, twenty minutes after the first call, during which he and Midler both broke down in a nervous frenzy over how terrible the movie was, and how both of their careers were over. The film went on to become a box-office smash.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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