For the directing trio behind notable spoofs such as “Airplane!”, the endeavor was a shocking revelation for filmmakers with such unassuming goals. This was not one of those innocent or mindless farces that lampooned the creative thrusts of a series of pop culture shticks, nor was it the embodiment of a cheery disposition set loose in a world of zany delight. As a decent into the loony madness of a barrage of despicable personalities, it represented the grandest of comedic extremes: a display of perverse and corrupt values that lacked all sincerity, and frequently delivered the audience into the lap of shocking punchlines. If politically incorrect sensibilities were not the driving influence of “Ruthless People,” then many of those involved were simply stoking dangerous fires. But they did not, by any stretch, amount to tone-deaf payoffs or miscalculated narrative thrusts. The laughs were so abundant, so well-staged, that they left behind an undeniable imprint in the cultural zeitgeist.
Yet the movie itself, still fresh and daring, is not frequently cited as a driving influence in today’s more liberated sense of humor. Perhaps when the envelope is pushed to the brink of acceptability, though, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the origins. Think of how quickly dark humor has dissolved over the course of time, and how the initial sting of movies like “Heathers” or “Happiness” have been lost in the revolving dialogue of more current trends. When film elasticizes the quality of its era, the punch gradually erodes, leaving behind only a dated sense of awareness. People of today do not identify with the extremes of the past. Sometimes, if we are lucky, a few of the jokes will hold their own out of sheer audacity, as they do in a film like “Man Bites Dog.” Does “Ruthless People” deserve those merits now, even as its mischief can be considered so tame and blasé? If anything, the driving force of the picture still holds up well thanks to a series of on-target performances, many of them from actors who have become ingrained in our memory like humorous relatives with questionable moral fiber.
Among them are two of the more famous of modern celebrity figures: Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, then very big draws at the domestic box office. They play (no joke) a married couple living in Bel Air in the midst of a rocky twist in their volatile relationship: namely, a silent scorn he carries for her very existence. He is a fashion designer named Sam Stone, and towards the beginning of the film there is a dialogue between him and a sultry mistress, where they discuss an impending plot to off her with a sense of vitriolic pleasure. Why does he despise her so? Their marriage is one of those all-too-familiar put-ons designed to cloak the desire for wealth; he wooed her with the promise of money, and her very life is all that stands in his way of a vast inheritance and financial empire. Unfortunately, when the movie spies him returning home to engage in his disgusting scheme against poor Barbara, someone has already beat him to the punch, and in an ominous phone call a voice chimes in with words he secretly devours with ravenous glee: “we have kidnapped your wife, and if you go to the police, she will be killed.”
There begins a long trajectory into the minefields of ambitious subplots. Chief among them is the one involving said kidnappers, two bumbling airheads played by Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater who have snatched angry and temperamental Barbara away from the comforts of her mansion in hopes of squeezing Sam out of money. Their reason: Sam apparently stole countless fashion designs from poor Sandy (the Helen Slater character), and failed to give her any credit for them. Their anger is not evenly matched by a shrewd sense of perspective, however; as kidnappers, they prove to be incompetent and unreliable, and soon Barbara, a rabid persona with the personality of a scorpion, upstages them with threats, intimidation and promises of total and utter punishment. And those are just a few of the details left over from their very first confrontation, too.
Meanwhile, Sam’s attractive mistress Carol (Anita Morris) has her own schemes in the works. Seeking to extort Sam for a small share of his eventual earnings, she sends off her own boyfriend, the dimwitted Earl (Bill Pullman), to videotape Sam disposing of Barbara’s body near the Hollywood sign (per the original plan). Ignorant of the sudden change of events in Sam’s secret scheme, however, Earl instead films the rousing shenanigans of a police chief and a hooker getting it on in his car, and interprets her orgasmic screams as Barbara’s final plea for life. That becomes one of the funniest of running jokes throughout the movie, as his pornographic tape is passed from one set of eyes to the next in a fog of misinterpretation, leaving some with the most morbid impressions. Who is the key figure in that tape? Ah, that is one of many precious secrets that “Ruthless People” tosses at us with alarming regularity, and to divulge the identity, even now, would be undermining another critical gag, in which both the target and Carol wind up having a phone conversation with dual overlapping meanings.
Much of the movie plays wryly with these sorts of setups; the jokes are often elaborate projections of misunderstandings and misgivings, leading us into a display of grand chaos in which characters reveal ulterior motives, double back on their intended purpose and then, in some cases, unite in unlikely ways to undermine the more dubious culprits. It is inevitable, for instance, that Barbara will turn her misfortune as an abductee into an opportunity to lose weight while trapped in a basement, and that in turn will lead her into the unlikely scenario of actually befriending her kidnappers, who aren’t very good at being menacing brutes anyway. In the interim, she will also discover that her husband, supposedly so loving and nurturing, doesn’t really care all that much about her safe return, and has frequently negotiated down the price of her ransom (which inspires that famous line, “I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!”). And then, the movie throws in added things such as doofus cops investigating the kidnapping, and even a schizophrenic serial killer who tries unsuccessfully to kill a key character before tumbling down a flight of stairs to his own death. Where must it all lead? The final sequence, a clash of all these differing trains of thought, leads us into a climax so convoluted and twisty that it’s almost skillful. And we laugh abundantly right down to the final frame, which features Barbara finally coming face to face with the spineless husband that wasn’t so eager to save her life.
The selling point in all of this lurid nonsense comes down to impeccable comic timing, and “Ruthless People” possesses that skill down to the finest of details. That might have been barely satisfactory in a movie without genuine personalities holding up the blackened sensibilities of the script, but DeVito, Midler, Reinhold, Slater and even Pullman establish themselves as formidable punching bags, and spit out just as much as they take in this explosive menagerie of conflicts. They are thoroughly unlikable, to be sure, and yet we take some sense of interest in their dilemmas. Many illegal and even morally repugnant activities go on in this ambitious mess of a story, but never does the direction mistake curiosity with empathy, and as we watch them reach the absolute pinnacle of their misfortune, our morbid interest is matched only by our laughs, which come abundantly even when we expect them not to.
I first saw “Ruthless People” many years ago when I was less perceptive about reading between the lines, but the conniving quality of the actors was enough to warrant a certain fascination. Years later I realized the full scope of the narrative gimmicks – and comprehended the ability to understand the dual meanings of things – and only then did the chuckles deepen into something more noteworthy. The concept of black humor would eventually jump the shark even further as the times progressed, but something distinctive about the film continued to leave an imprint, as if to suggest what was truly possible in the hands of someone who knew how to match politically incorrect ideas with balanced and well-staged comedic underpinnings. It remains, above all else, the greatest film by these three directors. What will younger audiences of this generation think of it? I can’t imagine them being won over by its more contemplative tendencies; such a notion undercuts the possibility of more frontal vulgarity, a common denominator in today’s comedies. But with the right sense of patience and receptiveness, they will not be bored by what they see, either. A great deal of bizarre circumstances occur in the frames of this very effective farce, and for any mind that is easily won over by the insistence of shocking humor, it continues to hold a bewildering power to inspire shock, awe and some unforgettable chuckles.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Crime/Comedy (US); 1986; Rated R; Running Time: 93 Minutes
Bette Midler: Barbara Stone
Danny DeVito: Sam Stone
Judge Reinhold: Ken Kessler
Helen Slater: Sandy Kessler
Anita Morris: Carol Dodsworth
Bill Pullman: Earl Mott
Produced by Joanne Lancaster, Michael Peyser, Richard Wagner and Walter Yetnikoff; Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker; Written by Dale Launer