Friday Film Review: Ruthless People
It’s hard for me to believe this film is 25 years old now. Time flies…But while the styles and fashions are (thankfully) long gone, I still laugh my head off at the funny lines, great performances and intricate plot. Most of the characters are ruthless, greedy, stupid or a combination of all three yet, with the exception of the bedroom killer, I can find something to like and root for in almost all of them.
Loathsome millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) has hated his porcine multimillionaire wife Barbara (Bette Midler) since before he married her. Now that her father has finally died and she’s inherited, he plans to kill her, as he tells his long time mistress Carol (Anita Morris). But unknown to him, that same day Barbara is kidnapped by a young couple Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater) whom Sam cheated in a business deal. When faced with their ransom demands and threat to kill Barbara if their instructions aren’t met, Sam exults, notifies the cops and plans to refuse to pay anything.
Meanwhile Barbara is giving Ken and Sandy hell as everyone waits on Sam. And waits. And lowers the ransom. And still waits. Carol, who has a lover other than Sam, has told Earl (Bill Pullman) to be at the site where Sam was supposed to kill Barbara and to tape it so they can blackmail him. But Earl mistakenly films a couple having rough, noisy sex in a car and thinks the woman’s screams are those of the dying Barbara. When Carol thinks Sam is on to her, she mails the tape to the police and demands they arrest Sam for murdering Barbara not knowing the impact the tape will have on the person actually in the car.
Faced with a now skeptical police force (Art Evans and Clarence Felder), Sam has to get Barbara back alive to prove his innocence. But Barbara, who due to the media now knows about Carol, has switched sides and together with Ken and Sandy has devised a plan to milk Sam dry and make him pay through the cajones.
From the opening credits – a cartoon take off on the hideous Memphis style furniture in Barbara’s house, with title song by Mick Jagger – you know something funny is coming. And everyone from that point out delivers. The plot is intricately built from a seemingly disparate collection of events and people who slowly mesh together to achieve the final outcome. It has a lot of balls to keep in the air and you might not remember them until some point later but the film makers never forget them and everything has a reason and time to be revealed.
It’s clearly Danny DeVito’s movie though Bette Midler isn’t far behind him. He’s so cheerfully determined to get rid of Barbara and so disdainful of Kenny’s willingness to keep lowering the ransom amount – which when Barbara learns about it leads to her famous line “I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!” The looks on his face as he minutely questions Ken as to how ruthless he is and then finally goads Ken into killing Barbara are priceless. Watch for the “extension of my manhood” car he drives and how out of proportion he is to the gawdawful furniture in the house. Midler does great physical comedy as she attacks mild mannered Ken – his poor gonads take a beating – then taunts and terrorizes meek Sandy before finally turning the basement into a weight loss gym. She’s initially so shrill and unlikable it’s almost possible to sympathize with Sam’s desire to get rid of her.
Reinhold plays the straight man who increasingly can’t believe the mess he’s gotten himself into. He’s so decent he can’t even rip people off selling retail at his stereo job – though he does take gleeful delight in puncturing a pompous male customer’s condescension at the reasonably priced speakers Ken shows to the man’s girlfriend. Slater is little more than a squashed cabbage of a character for most of the film though she redeems herself in a scene in which she tells an incredulous Ken how she and Barbara bonded over weight loss.
But wait! There’s more. Bill Pullman is scene stealing as a person of whom a police lieutenant says he “could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the planet.” Look at his passport photo and believe. If you still have doubts, notice the names of his fish, his bad dye job and that he drives a Gremlin. Nuff said. By the end of the film, Pullman has almost convinced me that he has the intelligence of a soap dish. Morris used her trademark sultry sexiness and native Southern accent to portray the quintessential “other woman” – though she’s momentarily flummoxed at Sam’s desire to get a big dog. While Evans and Felder play the two bumbling, investigating police lieutenants who are amazingly deaf, dumb and blind to what’s going on even through the end of the film.
This is a wonderful black comedy crossed with a large dose of silliness that works mainly because most of the characters are at least somewhat idiotic. We can believe that they aren’t figuring out exactly what’s going on simply because they’re money grubbing morons. There’s no suspention of belief required because we’ve already been provided with ample proof of this. With that out of the way, we can just sit back and enjoy as the story gets increasingly convoluted. It doesn’t rely on quite so many sight gags as the directors’ earlier movie “Airplane” does but it still delivers the laughs. While there is swearing and some sexual innuendo jokes, the humor mainly stays above the bathroom level to which many movies have sunk since then. It does show its age – the original soundtrack is listed as being available on records or cassettes – but I still enjoy it as much as the first time I saw it, lo those many years ago.