Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is not a good person. The 1986 comedy “Ruthless People” opens with Stone having lunch with his mistress Carol (Anita Morris), as he details his plans to murder his heiress wife Barbara (Bette Midler) later that evening. Upon hearing this, Carol duplicitously sends her moronic boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman, in his big screen debut) to videotape the murder for future blackmail.
But as Stone arrives home with a bottle of chloroform in his hands, Barbara is nowhere to be found. A phone call informs him that she’s been kidnapped and that if he contacts the police or the press she will be killed. The next scene shows a swarm of police and media as they descend on his mansion. “What did he do, hire a publicist?,” wonders her hapless kidnapper Ken Kessler (Judge Reinhold).
Of course, Kessler and his wife Sandy (Helen Slater) have no intention of killing Barbara. They only hatched the plot as a way to get compensation from Stone, who years earlier stole their life savings and the ideas of the budding fashion designer Sandy. Meanwhile, Earl mistakenly videotapes a sexual encounter between the police chief and a prostitute, whose screams sound like murder to the squeamish Earl. He’s able to convince Carol of the tape’s contents without her ever getting a good look at it, and she in turn is convinced that Stone has faked the kidnapping as an alibi.
…and that’s when things get complicated.
“Ruthless People” is hilarious from start to finish. With the possible exception of “Clue,” it’s probably the best broad comedy of the 80s not involving a former SNL cast member or John Hughes. The setup is inspired, and its twists and surprises are extremely clever and well executed. It’s also eminently quotable and features some extremely iconic performances.
In particular, DeVito plays that special breed of scumbag you can’t help but admire, a role he played several times but perfected here. Midler singlehandedly makes up for later career missteps with her turn as the scorned wife. Reinhold and Slater are perfect as the worlds most likable kidnappers. And Pullman steals every scene he’s in, to the point that it’s easy to see why Mel Brooks cast him as the lead in “Spaceballs” the following year.
“Ruthless People” was released almost exactly 24 years ago and went on to become the ninth highest-grossing film of 1986. Its sole credited screenwriter is Dale Launer, who also had writing credits on the similarly intricately plotted “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “My Cousin Vinny.” It was also the last film officially credited to the directing trio of David Zucker/Jim Abrahams/Jerry Zucker, who previously had directed “Airplane!,” “Top Secret!,” and the pilot of the short-lived television series “Police Squad!” which later spawned “The Naked Gun!” trilogy.
“Ruthless People” was unique for them in multiple ways. Not only was it not a spoof, it was also an ambitious step towards character development and dramatic payoff. This pedigree definitely works in the film’s favor, as sublimely silly moments accent the film without ever derailing the plot. Its tight pacing over a 94-minute running time should also be studied for its economy.
In fact, “Ruthless People” should be required viewing for anyone who appreciates comedy. Its biggest weakness can also be viewed as a strength from an anthropological standpoint: this movie has the distinction of having the single most “80s” art direction and soundtrack in history, perfectly capturing the worst of that decade’s excess. Those elements alone have aged the movie the most, even more so than the words “starring Danny DeVito, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, and Bette Midler.”
-This movie’s barebones DVD release and its shitty transfer are downright criminal. It deserves a features-packed celebratory re-release.
-Helen Slater is goddamn adorable in this.
-The business with the spider is priceless.
-This movie definitely rewards multiple viewings, with a lot of subtle touches and background details.
-I’m pretty sure that is Phil Hartman doing two uncredited news reporter voice overs.
-The duck masks the Kesslers wear as disguises were almost certainly a pre-emptive strike against “Howard the Duck,” which notoriously flopped at the box office less than two months later. Even before it came out people were mocking it!
-The complete lift of the line “You look just like my father, I hated my father” by The Joker (Heath Ledger) in “The Dark Knight” is interesting. Was it intentional? It works either way, but I’m curious.
-My favorite moment of just about any comedy ever: “This may very well be the stupidest person on the face of the Earth.”