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Danny DeVito and Bette Midler in 1986's "Ruthless People."

Ruthless People

September 18, 2018


Jim Abrahams
David Zucker
Jerry Zucker



Danny DeVito

Judge Reinhold

Helen Slater

Bette Midler

Anita Morris

Bill Pullman









1 Hr., 33 Mins.


ost people would have a difficult time functioning if they found out that their spouse had been kidnapped. Sam, played by Danny DeVito, isn’t among those people. One afternoon, after finishing a five-star lunch with his vampish mistress, Carol (Anita Dodsworth), he receives a call from a small-time criminal upon returning home. Gutturally, the crook informs him that he has kidnapped Sam’s wife, Barbara (Bette Midler). If Sam hands over $500,000, she will be

returned safely; otherwise, she will be killed. She will also be offed if Sam dares to phone the police or alert media personnel.


As the kidnapper drones on, with “yes”’ and “mmhmms” strafing the silences, the camera zeroes in on Sam’s face. We see not a man overcome with worry, but with delight. Immediately, he calls the police, tips off all local news stations, and enjoys a bottle of Bubbly.


What I haven’t mentioned is that, shortly after his lunch with Carol, Sam was planning on coming home and murdering the demanding and pampered Barbara himself. I haven’t mentioned that the kidnappers are unprepared, either. They are Ken and Sandy (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), young and wide-eyed, and look at the abduction as a form of revenge: months ago, Sandy, a flowering fashion designer, came up with a nifty idea for a garment. The blueprints were stolen by the scheming businessman Sam, who, since, has made a fortune off Sandy’s work. I also haven’t mentioned that Carol isn’t really in love with Sam. Once she hears, early on, that her lover is planning on killing Barbara, she plans to blackmail him. Her slow-witted boyfriend (Bill Pullman) will assist her.


What a farce. Ruthless People, from 1986, is sheer bedlam — an amped-up exercise in slapstick-comedy-inspired disorder. But the chaos is controlled. Written by Michael Peyser and directed by the power trio Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker — of Airplane! (1980) and Police Squad! (1982) fame — it harkens back to the hectic comedies of the 1930s, where the dialogue was whistle-stop, the characters zany, and the comedic situations steeped in a prominent deficiency of mutual understanding.


Though the Abraham and Zucker names are attached to the project — which might suggest the movie following will resemble the absurdist, non-sequitur-dependent comic style of The Naked Gun franchise (1988-’94), for instance — Ruthless People is more clever than it is riotously funny. The film, although featuring typical sight gags and various follies, is more contingent on its assembly line of preposterous jokes and Technicolor performances. It's more a chipper gallows lark than a sore-ab inducer.


The performances are the glazing topping this cake of a burlesque. Reinhold’s oft-utilized deadpan vocal fry complements the uncertainties which plague his inept kidnapper; Pullman manages to take the grate out of the playing-dumb cliché, while Dodsworth, resplendent in red, is an appealing, failed femme fatale.


But the movie belongs to DeVito and Midler. DeVito’s villainy is characterized by so much bravado — dancing, lip-licking, bottle-opening, cackling — that he makes evil look like the world’s greatest pastime. Midler is all brass — she turns insufferability into an art form. Ruthless People, not dissimilarly, turns the crafting of disarray into an art form, too. Maybe the laughs aren’t as rampant as they could be, but it’s constructed with such chutzpah that it’s forgivable. B


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