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BetteBack June 27, 1986: New York Times Reviews Ruthless People

New York Times
Ruthless People (1986)
FILM: ‘RUTHLESS PEOPLE,’ A COMEDY
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: June 27, 1986

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THE most irresistible thing about the characters in ”Ruthless People,” a conspicuously overconsuming, Beverly Hills update of O. Henry’s classic ”Ransom of Red Chief,” is that they all try with such earnestness to live up to their ruthless reputations.

However, they’re not only doggedly mean, deceitful and potentially murderous, they’re also inefficient, fainthearted and totally transparent. Yet they work without respite. If they devoted the same energies to the selling of cookies for the Girl Scouts of America, the G.S.A. could become the World Bank.

When first met, pint-sized Sam Stone (Danny DeVito), the Spandex miniskirt king, is having dinner in an elegant Los Angeles restaurant with Carol (Anita Morris), his tall, beautiful mistress, and planning the murder of his heiress-wife, Barbara (Bette Midler). Sam’s loathing of Barbara knows no bounds. He becomes positively poetic when he talks about her as ”that squeaky, corpulent broad. I even hate the way she licks stamps.”

Sam gets so excited about the murder he’s about to commit that he can’t wait to finish dinner. He rushes home with his bottle of chloroform (he’s going to drug her and toss the overweight body off a cliff), only to find that she’s been kidnapped. One of the delights of this mostly barren movie season is to see the pleasure that creeps over Sam Stone’s face as he listens to the kidnappers’ telephoned instructions.

They demand half a million dollars in ransom and promise that Barbara will be tortured and murdered if the money isn’t paid, as directed, and if the police are called in. Hoping for the worst, Sam immediately brings in the cops and every television reporter in Southern California.

The object of all this attention is as horrible as Sam describes her. Miss Midler’s Barbara Stone enters ”Ruthless People” kicking, clawing and cursing, hidden inside the gunnysack in which she’s been carried off by her kidnappers to their modest, spic-and-span, lower-middle-class hideaway.

The perpetrators are Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), a young, mousy, nonviolent couple who’ve been driven to this extreme action as a means of getting revenage on Sam, who stole Sandy’s Spandex miniskirt idea and became a multimillionaire.

I don’t want to oversell ”Ruthless People,” which opens today at the Beekman and other theaters. It’s the kind of movie that sounds a lot funnier than it sometimes plays. It has its arid patches.

It also has a uniformly splendid cast of comic actors – the best to be seen outside of any recent Blake Edwards movie. Its screenplay, by the newcomer Dale Launer, is packed with wonderfully vulgar, tasteless lines that perfectly reflect the sensibilities of Sam and Barbara Stone. (Says Sam at one point, when he should be grieving for his lost wife, ”Let’s face it – she’s not Mother Teresa. Gandhi would have strangled her.”) The direction, which can most accurately be defined as enthusiastic, is by the team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, who hit the target with ”Airplane!,” which they also wrote, and then missed with their follow-up, ”Top Secret.” Though ”Ruthless People” has few moments to equal the inspired lunacies of ”Airplane!” it’s a true farce -uniformly, cheerily nasty, without any of the sentimental baggage that freights ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

I can’t say enough good things about Mr. DeVito, who here is never allowed to ”act cute,” which has sabotaged his work in ”Romancing the Stone” and ”Jewel of the Nile,” or about Miss Midler, who starts off looking like a nightmare parody of Pia Zadora and winds up being a svelte if loud-mouthed kitten. ”Do I understand this correctly?” she says on learning that her husband won’t even pay $10,000 for her return. ”I’ve been marked down? I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!”

Mr. Reinhold and Miss Slater (”Supergirl”) are almost as funny as the unlikely kidnappers who do their best to cater to the whims of their whimsical ”guest.” Also entering into the spirit of the film are Miss Morris and Bill Pullman, who plays ”the stupidest person on the face of the earth,” the handsome if eccentric-looking young man with whom Miss Morris is two-timing Sam Stone. William J. Schilling appears briefly, but memorably, as a distraught commissioner of the Los Angeles police.

Though unbilled, O. Henry lives on -in a time and a place and a vocabulary that would make him blush.

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