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BetteBack July 12, 1986: ‘Ruthless People:’ you’ll leave laughing

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Madison Wisconsin State Journal
July 12, 1986


Take a good, simple idea — the kidnaping of a nagging wife whose husband doesn’t want her back — and add some charismatic casting — Danny DeVito and Bette Midler — and it would take a cinematic clod to turn out a bad picture.

Fortunately, the talents behind the camera in “Ruthless People” — the unusual three-man directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker — are not clods.

They proved it with the Hellzapoppin comedy “Airplane,” and they prove it once again here with a more traditional narrative story.

In fact, one of the delights of the movie (playing at Hilldale and Eastgate) is that its script dares to complicate
what could have been a much more straightforward yarn.

In addition to the ruthless husband (DeVito) who wants to get rid of his wailing wife (Miss Midler), there’s also his voluptuous girlfriend (Anita Morris). She has her own private agenda while sleeping with the film’s funniest character, the dumbest hunk in Los Angeles (Bill Pullman), which makes him the dumbest man in the world.

And there’s more. The kidnapers are a nice young couple (Judge Reinhold from “Beverly Hills Cop” and Helen Slater from “Supergirl”) who kidnap Midler to get back at DeVito because he stole one of their clothing designs.

But they are such nice kidnapers that they keep lowering the ransom price in an effort to entice DeVito.

That eventually causes Miss Midler to scream one of the film’s best lines: “I’m being marked down.”

It’s always tempting in critiquing a comedy to steal the film’s gags and make the review funnier. But so many of the big laughs in “Ruthless People” are so ruthlessly foulmouthed, and yet good-naturedly funny, that you won’t read them here.

Instead, let’s take the time to acknowledge the talent of Danny DeVito,who at 5 feet tall may be the most unlikely leading man regularly working today. Throughout his fine performances in “Romancing the Stone,” “Wise Guys” and now “Ruthless People,” DeVito relies less and less on his size for comic effect and more on his facial expression. He’s an actor and not a freak.

His character of Sam Stone, a vulgar, wealthy, Bel Air dress manufacturer, is a hard-nosed classic, admitting in the film’s opening sequence that he married his wife because she was very, very rich and her wealthy father was very, very sick.

That may be ruthless, but it’s so honestly expressed that it’s funny. And that’s DeVito special talent. He expresses the rage that big and little guys feel, and his rage is both credible and yet obviously designed to entertain.

Miss Midler’s fans, and they are legion, may be disappointed that she doesn’t have a bigger role in the film. We want the film to be more of a duel between them, even if it means cutting back on the kidnapers, who are only mildly amusing. The film’s only other failing is its flat ending.

Otherwise, “Ruthless People” contains some of the biggest laughs of 1986. The film is rated R.

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