Films, TV, and Theatre

Ruthless People (1986)

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 businessman.

Stars: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Anita Morris
Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

TV Guide

This 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.

Variety Staff

Ruthless People is a hilariously venal comedy about a kidnapped harridan whose rich husband won't pay for her return.

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.

Roger Ebert

It 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.

DeVito 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.

It 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.

The 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.

The 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 Midler.

The 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.

The 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 a row.

He 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 their legs.

DeVito 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.

Sky Movies

A 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

Bette Midler, Danny Devito, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Bill Pullman

Bette 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” [1988], when filmmakers used the well proportioned Divine Miss M for her comedy aptitude, more so than her ability to cry on cue.

The brainchild of the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker trio, "Ruthless People" is a side-splitting dark comedy with Bette at her mad best.

The 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.

The 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 wrists.

The 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.

The 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.