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Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker
Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Anita Morris, Bill Pullman
O. Henry, Dale Launer

Sam Stone's wife has just been kidnapped... And he doesn't want her back!
Rated R.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Surround
English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 93 min.
Price: $19.99
Release Date: 4/2/2002

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Ruthless People (1986)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that if I didn’t like the first 10 Depeche Mode albums, I won’t like the eleventh, right? Or maybe not. While I never actively disliked the band, I didn’t care for their early work. However, I loved the single “Barrel of a Gun” from 1997’s Ultra, so I gave the full album a shot. Whaddya know? I really enjoyed it, which goes to show you never can tell.

The same idea works for movies as well. I’ve seen many films made by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams. Whether together for flicks like Airplane! or alone for pictures such as Ghost, nothing they did seemed very interesting or entertaining to me.

Except… (You knew the exception was coming, right? Kinda obvious from the opening paragraph.) Except 1986’s Ruthless People, a thoroughly wonderful little comedy that proved that no rule is perfect.

Sam Stone (Danny De Vito) has a problem: he hates his wife. He only married her for the money, and he’s finally had enough of her annoying ways. He plans to kill her and inherit her fortune. Then he can marry his longtime mistress Carol (Anita Morris) and live happily ever after.

Unfortunately for him, someone beat Sam to the punch. Nice married couple Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Helen Slater) kidnap Barbara Stone (Bette Midler) and hold her for ransom. Sam stole Sandy’s spandex miniskirt idea and earned millions off of it while she received nothing, so Ken devises this plan to recoup some of that money.

Of course, Sam doesn’t intend to pay. When Ken calls with his demands, Sam totally ignores or defies them; Ken tells him not to call the police or the media, so he does both immediately. Sam wants the kidnappers to kill Barbara, and he goes to great lengths to try and accomplish this.

Another fly in the ointment comes from Sam’s mistress Carol. She cheats on him with lunkheaded stud Earl (Bill Pullman). They plan to videotape the murder then blackmail Sam so they can run off to Tahiti. Earl tapes something, but it ain’t the murder.

So begins a comedy of errors and hilariously silly situations. Barbara abuses her relentlessly nice abductors but grows along the way, while Sam has to deal with increasing problems from all sides. I won’t go into the details, but the movie takes quite a few fun twists and turns along the way.

I’ve loved Ruthless People for so long that I won’t pretend to possess any objectivity toward it. If I must choose weaknesses, they’d relate to the very dated styles and music. The film’s synth score screams “Eighties”, and some of the tunes do as well, though any flick that uses Springsteen’s roots rocker “Stand On It” earns some points. Of course, many of the fashions seen mark the movie’s era, though it could look worse.

I can’t fault the movie because it looks like it came out in the Eighties, though; that’s a natural by-product of the process. People easily overcomes those elements due to its tremendously sense of spirit and mean-spirited fun. The main gag comes from the fact that almost everyone in the flick is nasty except the kidnappers; the only explicit lawbreakers are also the only really nice folks.

In addition, People packs many other terrific bits. Some seem obvious, but many are less so. Although they’re best known for extremely broad comedy like Airplane!, the directors actually demonstrate restraint during People. The movie provides scads of little moments away from the main action and it never spotlights them for the viewer. This means the flick holds up nicely to repeated viewings because you’ll see new things.

Since comedy’s a performer’s medium, People benefited from an excellent cast. If I had to pick a weak link, it’d be Morris. While competent, her work always left me a little flat; maybe it’s just because I don’t find her to be attractive enough to seduce so many men.

Nonetheless, I don’t have any real problems with her performance; she mainly comes up short due to the competition. While all the actors seem terrific, I’d have to choose Midler as the best of the bunch. I’ve never cared for her as an actor or a singer, but she’s simply outstanding as Barbara. She digs her teeth into the role and portrays the character with wild verve that makes Midler a consistent joy to watch. Midler’s appropriately over the top and hilarious from start to finish.

Ruthless People may not be the greatest movie comedy ever made - gotta go with This Is Spinal Tap for that prize - but it’s very high on my list. After more than a decade and a half, the film remains a delight. It’s wonderfully wicked and witty, and it benefits from excellent performances across the board. Frankly, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The DVD Grades: Picture C- / Audio C+ / Bonus F

Ruthless People appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Ever since I got my first DVD player in the summer of 1998, I’ve wanted a copy of Ruthless People in the worst way. Be careful what you wish for, as that’s exactly how People came to DVD: in the worst way.

To be fair, Ruthless People didn’t provide the crummiest DVD I’ve ever witnessed, but it nonetheless offered a very disappointing experience. The picture displayed a myriad of problems. Sharpness seemed good as a whole. Most of the movie appeared reasonably distinct and well defined, as I noticed only a couple of moderately soft scenes. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, though I did detect a bit of edge enhancement at times.

Many Eighties films show muddled colors, and People fell into that trap. The hues seemed a bit runny and messy some of the time, and I also saw reddish skin tones. Overall, the colors really looked acceptable; they just displayed the moderately heavy appearance often typical of the era. Black levels seemed acceptably deep and rich but they lacked much distinction, while shadow detail came across as similarly fair; low-light situations showed no excessive heaviness, but they could like slightly muddy.

Where People really lost points related to print flaws. Even if we ignore the badly-marred opening credit sequence, the remainder of the film still displayed a slew of concerns. Grain appeared fairly heavy at times, and I also saw many examples of specks, grit, nicks, marks, blotches and other defects. Very few parts of the film escaped unscathed. At times, People actually managed to look fairly good; a few sequence provided clear and vibrant images. However, these occurred infrequently, so the overall picture earned no better than a disappointing “C-“, and I easily could make the case for a “D+”.

While not impressive, the Dolby Surround 2.0 audio of Ruthless People definitely outdid the visuals. The soundfield largely stayed with a forward emphasis, but it opened up nicely at times. In the front, I heard good general ambience, and quite a few elements moved across the channels and provided a reasonably lively setting. A few split-screen sequences featured directional dialogue, though with inconsistent results; one scene correctly placed the speakers, but the other showed an odd balance. Music offered solid stereo presence, and the surrounds kicked in some useful environmental effects. Some of these were more active than others - such as when a helicopter entered the scene - but the rears usually gave us surprisingly involving audio.

Sound quality came across as acceptable but dated. Speech seemed intelligible and reasonably clear but the dialogue could appear a bit stiff at times. It lacked any signs of edginess, though. Effects sounded clean and acceptably distinct, but they also appeared somewhat flat and vaguely unnatural. They showed decent fidelity but not great bass response. Music probably worked the worst. The score and songs lacked crisp and bright highs and appeared somewhat muddy. Bass response was loud but fairly indistinct; low-end seemed rather boomy at times. I also heard some light hiss on occasion. Overall, the soundtrack appeared more than acceptable for its era, primarily due to a nicely enveloping soundfield. However, the moderately weak quality of the sound meant I didn’t feel comfortable with a grade above a “C+”.

While both picture and sound had their concerns, the only area in which Ruthless People totally failed related to extras. The DVD included none - not even a trailer!

Ruthless People appeared as part of Buena Vista’s new “budget” line; they’ve begun to churn out back catalog releases with the relatively inexpensive $20 price point. While it’s good to see them more actively produce older titles, I hope People didn’t represent the level of quality we can expect from all of these discs. The movie remains one of my favorites. It offers a consistently funny and clever piece that becomes even more successful due to a slew of solid performances.

Unfortunately, the DVD tanked. Picture quality was often a mess, and sound quality seemed acceptable for the era but still was flawed. The disc lacked any supplements whatsoever. In the end, I can’t not recommend Ruthless People; it’s too good a movie, and despite its flaws, the DVD still represents the best home video incarnation of the film. However, this offers a major disappointment, as it seems like a very shoddy effort.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3684 Stars Number of Votes: 19
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