Black comedy starring Danny
DeVito and Bette Midler. A pair of amateur kidnappers have difficulty
collecting a ransom when they kidnap the obnoxious wife of an unscrupulous
Stars: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater,
Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
is a wacky, tasteless, hilarious reworking of O. Henry's classic short story "The
Ransom of Red Chief." The movie begins as millionaire garment manufacturer
Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is having dinner with Carol (Anita Morris), his sultry
mistress. He is planning to murder Barbara (Bette Midler), his overweight and
shrewish wife, unaware that Carol is cheating on him with her hunky, clunky beau,
Earl (Bill Pullman). Before Sam can kill Barbara, however, she is kidnapped by
a sweet young couple, Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater), who are seeking
revenge against Sam for using an idea of Sandy's to make a fortune without paying
her one cent in royalties. They tell Sam that Barbara will be tortured and killed
if he breathes one word of the kidnapping to the police or the press. Naturally,
Sam thinks his troubles are over, but he's wrong. Everyone in the movie seems
to have a comic moment, because the laughs are piled on top of each other. Call
it rude, crude, and lewd, but you also have to call it very funny.
Ruthless People is a hilariously venal comedy about a
kidnapped harridan whose rich husband won't pay for
In short, impoverished couple Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater
kidnap Bel-Air princess Bette Midler because her mercenary husband, played by
Danny DeVito, has ripped off Slater's design for spandex miniskirts.
There is much, much more to it than that, as screenwriter Dale Launer cleverly
builds twist upon complication to a point where practically everyone in the cast
is writhing in frustration and mystification as they wonder whether their latest
opportunistic scheme is going to work.
Midler, when first glimpsed,
is an absolute fright who looks like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Divine.
After terrorizing her kidnappers, she embarks upon an energetic self-improvement
program, and not surprisingly emerges with the upper hand.
is so hard to play a lovable villain, and Danny DeVito does it so easily. His
eyes narrow, his voice deepens, and he speaks with great earnestness and sincerity
about his selfish schemes and vile designs. "Ruthless People" opens
as DeVito is having lunch with his mistress, and we can see that this is a man
filled with passion. In this case, the passion is hatred for his wife and for
all that she stands for, and for all that her rich father stands for, and even
for all that her poodle stands for.
is the mainspring of "Ruthless People," the engine of murderous intensity
right at the center. His passion is so palpable that it adds weight to all the
other performances in the movie. If we can believe he really wants to kill his
wife, then we can believe he would not pay the ransom if she were kidnapped, which
is the movie's comic premise.
is, indeed, a pleasure to watch his face as he receives the first call from the
kidnappers and they threaten to kill his wife if he doesn't follow every single
one of their instructions to the letter. As he agrees to their stipulations, one
after another, a wonderous calm spreads over his face, and the scene builds to
a perfect climax.
wife is played by Bette Midler, who makes her first entrance kicking and screaming
inside a burlap bag. She has been kidnapped by Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater,
who want to get even with DeVito, a clothing manufacturer who has ripped off their
designs. It's a juicy role for Midler, a first cousin to the airhead housewife
she played in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and she milks it for
all it's worth, turning into an exercise freak while being held captive in a basement.
movie doesn't depend on just the one inspiration - the husband who doesn't want
to ransom his wife. It has lots of other ideas and characters that fit together
like a clockwork mechanism. We have the mistress (Anita Morris) and her boyfriend
(Bill Pullman), who is not playing with a full deck. And then there are the police
chief (William G. Schilling), who backs himself into an embarrassing situation,
and a mad slasher (J.E. Freeman), who picks the wrong victim when he comes after
movie is slapstick with a deft character touch here and there. It's hard to keep
all the characters and
plot lines alive at once, but "Ruthless People" does it, and at the
end I felt grateful for its goofiness.
discovery in the movie is DeVito. After seeing him on television's "Taxi"
and here and there in character roles, I first began to notice how good he was
in "Romancing the Stone." Then came his great performance in "Wise
Guys," opposite Joe Piscopo, and now this second virtuoso performance in
is, of course, very short, but there's a funny thing about his stature: It seems
to be a fact of his body, not his mind or personality. In closeups and whenever
he speaks, he has so much force that he can easily command his scenes. He never
seems to be compensating; he seems to be holding back. Like British actor Bob
Hoskins, who also is shorter than most of the people in most of his scenes, he
has a way of making the taller people around him seem unsure of what to do with
is a great joy to watch in this movie, as the turns of the plot catch him in one
dilemma and then another. First he wants the kidnappers to kill his wife. Then,
when he is charged with faking her kidnapping, he wants to ransom her. All along,
there's a running gag as he negotiates the ransom price, and Midler has a great
moment when she learns that her husband is trying to buy her back - at a discount.
"Ruthless People" is made out of good performances, a script of diabolical
ingenuity and a whole lot of silliness.
broad and sometimes quite crass blue-collar farce about a kidnapped
wife who is so gross her husband is only too pleased not to pay
the ransom, especially as he was planning to bump her off. The film
gets funnier as it goes on, due mostly to the increasing role played
by Bette Midler as the wife. She sheds 20 pounds thanks to aerobic
classes on the TV provided by the kidnappers (Judge Reinhold, Helen
Slater) with whom she becomes friendly. It's from their home that
she plans revenge on her husband (Danny DeVito) who refuses to pay
an ever-decreasing ransom demand in the hope that the kidnappers
will kill her. Somewhere in all this is a crossplot we didn't quite
understand, involving DeVito's mistress (Anita Morris) trying to
blackmail him with a video she thinks shows something other than
it does. Directed by the men who made Airplane! , Ruthless People
scores nowhere near as high on the laugh meter; for Midler, however,
it's a triumph. DeVito has one or two frenziedly funny moments as
the homicidal husband, and Bill Pullman makes an amusing film debut
as a dim-witted extortionist.
Feb 9, 2006
Midler, Danny Devito, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Bill Pullman
Midler was a force to be reckoned with in the 80’s. Not only was
she the queen of song, but she was a semi-princess of the lawless
comedy too. This was back before the days of “Beaches” , when
filmmakers used the well proportioned Divine Miss M for her comedy
aptitude, more so than her ability to cry on cue.
brainchild of the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker trio, "Ruthless People"
is a side-splitting dark comedy with Bette at her mad best.
film stars Danny Devito as Sam Stone, a hard-nosed business tycoon
married to the loud, superfluous Barbara (Midler). His problem’s
solved when he returns home one day to find she’s been kidnapped.
Thank god, he says.
kidnappers (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater) demand a sumly $500,000
ransom for Barbara, but Stone keeps delaying the progression, mystifying
the foes and ultimately making the situation more confounding. When
Sam himself is ultimately implicated for his wife’s disappearance,
he realizes he needs his wife back – if only to save his own hide
– but this time it’s the kidnapper’s who have the ball in their
court and up their price.
One of the funniest and most enjoyable films of the Zucker back
catalogue, “Ruthless People” is the kind of vanilla sounding flick
made all the more better thanks to the stellar cast. Midler is uproariously
funny as the loud, but guiltless Barbara, Devito classically malevolent
as her unfeeling husband, and Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater, perfectly
cast as the likeable young couple holding the twine behind Barbara’s
DVD has the worst sleeve I think I’ve seen in eons. Who’s going
to buy this with such a budget, generic sleeve, I remember the film’s
original theatrical poster looking a lot more appealing than this
cut and paste job.
DVD itself isn’t much more impressive. It isn’t awful, but sharpness
is lacking, and grain is fairly evident in several scenes. Thankfully,
the sound’s a lot better.