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.