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Film Capsule: Ruthless People

The 1986 movie Ruthless People is a black comedy loosely based on the O. Henry short story The Ransom of Red Chief, that starred Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater. It was directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker.

Plot description
When Ken (Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Slater) find themselves in an untenable financial position, they hatch a desperate scheme to get rich by kidnapping Barbara Stone (Midler), the overweight loud-mouthed wife of ruthless businessman Sam Stone (DeVito). This scheme is motivated in no small part by the fact that Sam has stolen successful fashion designs from the couple and is thus largely responsible for their woes. They plan to demand a large ransom from Stone.

Things go astray, however, when it becomes obvious that Sam is not only sick of his wife, but is actually overjoyed to find that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of murdering her – all he needs to do is not pay the ransom, and the kidnappers will do his dirty work for him. Unfortunately for him, the Kesslers, while desperate, are not about to murder anyone.

Sandy and Ken discover that Barbara is not keen to return to Sam, either, and the three hatch a plot to get back at him.

The film’s theme song was co-written by Mick Jagger, Daryl Hall and Eurythmics co-member Dave Stewart and performed by Mick Jagger. Assuming the song would be a hit, “Weird Al” Yankovic requested (and received) permission from Jagger to record a parody version, “Toothless People”, for his upcoming Polka Party! album. When Jagger’s song failed to crack the Top 40, Yankovic considered not recording his version; because Jagger had “authorized” the parody, however, he decided failing to produce it would be an insult to the artist and recorded it. Polka Party! also failed and became Al’s worst-selling album.

Directors Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker are best known for their spoof comedies like the Airplane! and The Naked Gun films. This film, by contrast, is a straight comedy bordering on farce, with very few of the innumerable sight gags and puns and jokes of the others movies.

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