The Airplane team of Zucker, Zucker, Abrahams assemble a brilliant cast (Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) for this 1980s gem.
Rich tycoon Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is all set to kill his wife (Bette Midler) and make off with all her money and assets. He’s aided, and unsurprisingly encouraged, by his partner-in-crime and beautiful mistress (Anita Morris) to do the nasty deed. However, Sam returns home to find her missing. Restless that his plan isn’t going to go ahead, he almost gives up hope for day when the phone rings. At the other end of the line is a voice that tells Sam his wife has been kidnapped and if he doesn’t pay a hefty ransom, she will be assassinated. Sensing someone else will do his dirty work for him, Sam ignores the ransom. All would appear to be going in his favour but unbeknownst to him, the kidnappers – Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), are probably the most inept criminals in the world and have no intention of killing anybody. Couple this with his wife’s constant neurosis, his mistress’s attempts to set Sam up for murder to get his money for herself, and her boyfriend (Bill Pullman) and his desperately unconvincing attempts to help her.
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker are renowned for their slapstick parody in such classics as Airplane and The Naked Gun. Here, however, they are much more restrained, keeping the comedy dialogue-driven rather than physical. That’s not to say there isn’t any physical comedy; comparatively, there is an abundance of it, but compared to something like Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race, it is relatively kept to a minimum. This is because of two major reasons, 1) they’ve got such a good script by Dale Launer to work with and, 2) the performances of the actors are simply wonderful, making over-the-top physical hysterics overkill, with the actors delivering some killer comedic lines with comic perfection. Also, possibly, the Zucker brothers and Abrahams wanted a project that was driven by character humour rather than situation parody, adding a dimension to their career highlights.
Dale Launer, who also wrote two more favourites My Cousin Vinny and the wonderful Steve Martin/Michael Caine vehicle Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, has the ability to keep a film’s pace briskly moving forward while maintaining the various character strands within the plot. What we lose in real depth, we gain in charisma and characterisation. From Sam’s wife Barbara and her constant grumbling about her weight, (something that becomes more important than her life), to Bill Pullman as a reckless crook who wouldn’t know his knee from his elbow, Launer keeps the characters fresh and wonderfully endearing. He also never lets the jokes lay dormant, keeping them coming constantly without giving the audience much time to breathe.
This film is all about the characters and simply would not work without solid performances, yet what we get is much more. Bette Midler is hilariously neurotic throughout, snapping some cold, spiteful quips at her kind hearted kidnappers. She has an uncanny knack of making some frightening facial expressions but balances these with restrained dryness, one minute she’ll be demonstrating what it looks and sounds like to be sitting in an electric chair going to your death, the next she’ll merely pass off a line about having urine injected into her because it promotes weight loss. The other stand out is Danny DeVito who is on top form. His sniveling, desperate businessman is a cross between the high-and-mighty lawyer of The War Of The Roses and the scheming, cunning Penguin of Batman Returns. The little man can have you loving and hating him in equal measure, and most of the time he does it at the same time. Another superb turn comes from Bill Pullman who, although only having a small role, steals every scene with his dry delivery and ineptitude.
Ruthless People is an excellent comedy that has perhaps been lost in the shadows of the director’s more prominent work. It is a shame because there is a lot to like here. Not many films can maintain so many characters, while keeping things moving, but this one certainly can. It has its few flaws like a serial killer subplot that ends up feeling tacked on, but all in all it works terrifically well. Ruthless People is lovable, endearing, and refreshingly funny on every viewing. One of my all time favourites.
I first wrote this review in 2002 as a contributing writer for DVD Times (now the Digital Fix)