BetteBack June 27, 1986: Bette Midler Is Priceless In Ruthless People

Philadelphia Inquirer
Film: Raunchy Fun In A Farce On Greed
By Desmond Ryan, Inquirer Movie Critic
POSTED: June 27, 1986


The heiress has just learned from her kidnappers that her husband refuses to pay the ransom, even though they keep desperately reducing the figure. As the truth dawns upon her, Bette Midler takes on an expression that can only be described as sleazy hauteur, and bellows, “Marked down!”

Barbara Stone (Midler), the victim of this K mart kidnapping, is loud and obnoxious. And so is just about everyone else in Ruthless People, a movie that believes all human impulses originate below the belt and one that has a merry time proving it. When a comedy is as foul-mouthed and raunchy as Ruthless People, it helps if it’s also funny. And for most of its frenzied going, Ruthless People is a diverting and very shrewdly cast farce about bottomless greed.

Although it shares some thematic ground with John Huston‘s savage Prizzi’s Honor, Ruthless People does not aspire to the same level of sophistication and subtlety. Everything here is more superficial and aimed at the immediate laugh rather than laughter that surfaces from revelation of character. To that end, the directing triumvirate of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – the team behind Airplane!. (1980) – has chosen stars who can get that laugh by their response to a predicament or a sudden change of fortune.

Midler, most recently cast as another rich harpy in Down and Out in Beverly

Hills, has shown that she was born to this kind of role, and she seems to play it instinctively. But as the husband who is delighted to have her taken off his hands because he was planning to kill her anyway, Danny DeVito does his best work yet for the big screen. Perhaps it takes three directors to rein him in, but DeVito is restrained here and it makes a big difference. Too often in the past he has flailed away before the camera like a man under attack by a swarm of invisible bees.

To this welcome control, DeVito has added a really mean streak to his Sam Stone. Mix in the ever-understated acting of Judge Reinhold and character actors who take gleefully to juicy cameos and you have the makings of an undemanding but well-executed entertainment.

There are scorpions who have better relationships than Sam and Barbara Stone. Sam is a clothing tycoon living in a Bel-Air mansion filled with furnishings that are as vulgar as they are uncomfortable. At the outset, he is about to murder Barbara for her money so that he can enjoy his mistress in peace.

Although Ruthless People is strictly an amorality play, the only people with a shred of decency left in them are the kidnappers. Their lives are taken over by Barbara and her unceasing demands and the realization that they are stuck with her.

Readers of Elmore Leonard’s novel Switch will recognize the ingredients, and Dale Launer, a new screenwriter, has resorted to over-plotting in his approach to them. He presumably intends to keep up the tempo to a degree that moves to the next situation and reaction just as the previous one has sunk in. But the pace may have more to do with the three directors, who brought this machine-gun style to Airplane!

In fact, the funniest moments in Ruthless People come from the points where the stars find some room – usually little more than a crevice – to act rather than react. That’s nearly always the case in good comedy. But Ruthless People deals in the easier kind of humor that makes audiences laugh more instead of think harder. On those terms, it’s a winner. Midler may be marked down faster than a sun dress at the end of the summer, but her contribution to Ruthless People is priceless.

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