BetteBack Review: Ruthless People

The Orange County Register
‘Ruthless People’ is ruthlessly funny’
Friday, June 27, 1986

Those “golden screw” print and TV ads for “Ruthless People” give it away. This, you’d have every right to assume, is gonna be one tasteless, tacky, sophomoric, vulgar enterprise. And you’d be dead right. But if you have a high threshold for
tastelessness – all the way down to poodle poop jokes and sight gags involving Black & Decker marital aids – this new
anything-for-a-laugh comedy from the makers of “Airplane!” and “Top Secret” will provide a low-brow good time of the
highest order.

That doesn’t mean anybody’s going to confuse this movie wi th great comic artistry. The previously established method
of directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker – known collectively as ZAZ – has been to simply hurl a few
thousand joke grenades at us, hoping at least a third of them would go off. Fortunately, they did.

With “Ruthless People,” ZAZ try their hand at linear storytelling, and it proves too confining. When the directors run out
of funny ideas having to do with the characters and plot, which happens fairly early on (the.poodle poop joke is the first
major tip-off), they haul out their grenade supply and start lobbing away. The result is a film that makes their earlier
efforts look like textbook examples of consistent comic style.

But compensating for their new film’s often stunning lack of evenness is the fact that, once again, at least a third of the
joke bombs go off – and the explosions range from outright belly laughs to loud, low, perfectly enjoyable groans.

The characters certainly live up to the f i lm’s title; virtually everyone is either ruthless or aspiring to great, unexplored
levels of ruthlessness. First and foremost is Danny DeVito, the filthy-rich “Spandex Miniskirt King,” whose hatred for his
loud, obnoxious, monumentally dizzy wife (Bette Midler) is equaled only by his hatred for her French poodle, Mu’ffy.

DeVito’s plan: Kill Midler (a woman “Gandhi would have strangled”), kill Muffy, and live happily ever, after with his charmingly kinky mistress (Anita Morris). Before he can carry it out, however, Midler is kidnapped by nice kids Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater, whose original Spandex miniskirt design was stolen by you-know-who.

When DeVito gleefully refuses to cough up the $50,000 ransom, then the $20,000 ransom or the $10,000 ransom, the kidnappers panic and the kidnappee becomes outraged: “Do I understand this correctly? Am I being marked down? Oh my
God, I’ve been kidnapped by K mart.”

Meanwhile, DeVito’s mistress plots to frame him so she can run off to Haiti (or is it Tahi t i ?) with her boyfriend (Bill
Pullman), a quasi-punker-stud who may indeed be “the stupidest person on the face of the earth.” In the interim, a wide
variety of not-so-innocent bystanders also receive a “golden screw,” including the local police commissioner (William G.
Schilling) and a slasher-psychopath known as the Bedroom Killer (J.E. Freeman).

This story plays host to all sorts of approaches from its stars, who sometimes seem to be spliced together from different
movies. There’s DeVito’s patented (and still hilarious) Louie DePalma hastiness; Reinhold,’s’sweetly innocent klutz; Morris’
and Pullman’s conniving stupidity; and Midler’s apoplectic overplaying .. . with with which she wades into the movie and cleans up.

To the degree that this is anybody’s movie, it is Midler’s. She is a wonderful performer with a high and infectious energy level and a split-second timing instinct that allows her to float in raunchy material instead of sinking in it. After long periods of screen inactivity broken up with forced, lead-weight clinkers like “Jinxed,” it is good to see that Hollywood is finally starting to realize what this woman can do.

There is a wonderful moment when the crazed Bedroom Killer wants to kill Midler for looking like his mother and Reinhold for looking like his father. “You know what this means?” the dead-serious Midler asks Reinhold. “It means that if we had a kid, it would look like him.” That kind of warped comic logic is pretty much all that holds this movie together. But combined with the Divine Miss M and ZAZ’s utter fearlessness to go where no other filmmakers have tread (who else could – or would – spend five minutes wringing sexual double-entendres out of a conversation about stereo speakers?), “Ruthless People” becomes a tasteless, tacky, sophomoric, vulgar, wildly uneven, ruthlessly funny farce.

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