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Friday Film Review: Ruthless People

Ruthless People (1986)
Genre: Crime Comedy
Grade: B+

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.


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. ShellBell
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 05:10:50

    25 years old .. WOW!! I’m not a huge fan of Bette Midler but I love her in this movie. Love this movie and watch it a couple of times a year. Favourite line ‘I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!’

  2. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 05:17:12

    @ShellBell: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another Bette Midler movie I’ve watched. I like some of her stand up routines but not her movie choices.

  3. ShellBell
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 05:40:27

    @ Jayne .. Bette Midler wasn’t too bad in Outrageous Fortune (with Shelly Long) or Down and Out in Beverley Hills (with Nick Nolte) but she never appealed to me enough for me to want to watch Beaches or The Rose or any other movies/TV shows.

  4. ms bookjunkie
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 05:44:18

    @Jayne: You haven’t seen Beaches? Rectify that soonest! (Hmm… I remember loving it all those years ago, but am now having trouble remembering the plot. Need to watch it again. OTOH, the movie soundtrack will likely earworm me to my grave.)

    And it sounds like I should definitely watch Ruthless People.

  5. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 05:59:20

    @ShellBell: Oh, I’d forgotten “Down and Out.” I did see that but it’s been so long I barely remember it. I’ve never been interested in Rose or Beaches.

  6. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 06:16:38

    @ms bookjunkie: I think I’ll pass on Beaches since I generally don’t go in for tearjerker movies. Plus I’ve never liked the hit song from the film.

  7. Mary Anne Graham
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 06:55:02

    Love this movie. Mr. DeVito’s character in this one reminds me of his master turn in “Other People’s Money.”

    Great film.

  8. Lexxie Couper
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 07:39:29

    Oh wow, how freaky! I stumbled upon this film on satellite telly yesterday and had to had to had to watch it. I remembering seeing it at the cinema on a first date (with the guy Strictly Ballroom was based on, my biggest claim to fame) and laughed so much I snorted (highly embarrassing for a first date).

    Still so hilarious. Bette Milder’s face during her basement “work-out sessions” crack me up. And Bill Pullman is brilliant… “Crockett and Tubbs….they’re floatin’!”

    Whatever happened to Judge Reinhold? He was funny, damn it.

  9. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 07:58:24

    Oh man, my kids are right. I am older than dirt! I remember watching this in the theater. One scene I still remember is when Reinhold is pushing the stereo speakers so large they can be used as coffins, and of course, the “kidnapped by K-mart” line.

    Thanks for the memories!

  10. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 08:02:05

    @Lexxie Couper: I was wondering the same thing about Reinhold when I was writing this. It looks like he’s mainly been doing TV work.

  11. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 08:05:22

    @Darlene Marshall: I love that speakers-as-coffins scene. “They can f*cking bury you in ’em!”

  12. Lexxie Couper
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 08:28:17

    @Jayne: @Darlene Marshall: I love that speakers-as-coffins scene. “They can f*cking bury you in ‘em!”

    LOL Jayne, you beat me to it.

    I use this line “F*CKING FINANCE IT!” often when trying to convince my husband we need to buy something really really expensive. Like Ken Kessler however, it’s never successful *melodramatic sigh*

  13. Cindy
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 08:55:32

    One of my very favorite movies ever. Along with the kidnapped by K-mart line, I liked the line with the 2 cops watching Bill Pullman’s character and the one saying something like “We may be looking at the stupidest person in the world.” Hilarious! I’m going to have to dig this out for my Saturday night movie…I think I have the DVD. God, I hope I didn’t only have it on VHS.

  14. Claudia Dain
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 08:55:34

    This is a movie that I haven’t seen in years, maybe a decade?, but I remember loving it. It was both LOL funny and sweetly charming, and that’s hard to do. I wish Bette Midler did more movie work–she’s amazing.

  15. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 09:11:33

    @Claudia Dain: Ken and Sandy are so sweet and cute together. Especially when contrasted to Sam and Barbara – “I even hate the way she licks stamps!”

  16. Keishon
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 09:51:06

    Oh wow you definitely went way back. I love this film and watched I don’t know how many times. Even memorized some of the dialogue. Saw it at the movies as well. Someone up thread mentioned Beaches. Very good movie (cliche ridden but hey) and the film has a wonderful soundtrack but it is a tearjerker.

  17. TaraL
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 09:52:35

    It was one of my husband’s proudest moments when he was able to use the Danny Devito line from this movie on a wrong number who had been waking us up in the middle of the night for weeks asking for Janet. It was just *gasp* -click- and she never called back…

    Loved this movie and haven’t seen it for ages. As to Bette Midler flicks, I also liked “Outrageous Fortune” and “For The Boys.” I’d still rather watch almost any of her concert flicks than most of her movies. I just can’t get enough Delores Delago…

  18. RowanS
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:56:47

    I still crack up at the scene where Morris & Pullman are planning to blackmail DeVito, and Pullman says “And then we’re off to Haiti!” And Morris: “That’s TAHITI!”

  19. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:01:30

    @TaraL: OMG, I’m cracking up at the thought of your husband using that line!

  20. Angela
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:22:47

    I’m definitely going to have to see this! Sounds hilarious.

    My favorite Bette Midler movie is First Wives Club, but I’ve probably seen that one and Hocus Pocus the most out of all of hers.

  21. Kim in Hawaii
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 12:30:05

    Oh,the 80s! I enjoyed the movie for the multiple plots! Every cast member contributed!

    I enjoyed the Divine Miss M in Beaches and the First Wives’ Club. And who can forget that she sang to Johnny Carson on his last show?

    More trivia – Bette was born in Honolulu as a military child. She has a house on Kauai and actively participates in the preservation of the Green Isle.

  22. JMM
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 15:53:27

    OMG, I loved this movie! Went with my mother. We cracked up (Me blushing – this was my MOTHER sitting next to me) at the Dustbuster scene.

  23. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 17:50:27

    @JMM: LOL, if you want a funny OTT movie about fun with a cleaning appliance, try to find “Super Sucker.” You’ll never look at a vacuum cleaner attachment in quite the same way.

  24. Suzanne
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 06:23:24

    I’ve loved Bette Midler ever since I first saw her on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson! (Really showing my age here.) Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune (only Shelley Long movie I liked) and First Wives Club were wonderful. I’m not much into tearjerkers either, but I liked Beaches.

  25. sarah mayberry
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 19:26:31

    I love this movie. You’ve made me want to watch it again. I can still remember Danny DeVito’s unrepentant glee at Bette being kidnapped. Fabulous black comedy.

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