After launching themselves to the top tier of comedic directors with their seminal Airplane! (1980) and their spy-spoof follow up, Top Secret! (1984), directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker put aside their own brand of genre lampooning temporarily aside to direct Dale (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Cousin Vinny) Launer’s farce Ruthless People (1986). In retrospect, the film owes a lot to the work of novelist Elmore Leonard: strong and often hilarious dialogue, a peanut gallery of rouges and misfits, and a kidnapping plot that is condemned by fate the moment it is put into motion. Actually, and I think there is a joke about the similarity in Leonard’s novel Rum Punch (1992, which was later adapted by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown), the film feels like an unadvertised adaptation his novel The Switch (1978) in which two kidnappers hold a millionaire’s wife ransom, only to discover that the husband doesn’t want her back.
In the film, the two kidnappers are hapless victims, Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Helen Slater), a husband and wife team who found their fashion idea—-the spandex mini-skirt—-stolen by cutthroat millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito). The running gag is that the Kesslers just don’t have it in them to be bad people. “We have to be ruthless. Think ruthless…It’s good for you. It makes you strong,” Ken begs his wife as he picks up a spider plaguing their household, only to place it outside. Hell, Ken, a stereo salesman, isn’t even heartless enough to rip off a douchebag looking to buy the most overpriced, phallic system in the shop. Given that situation, you can probably guess how the Kesslers react when Stone informs them that he will not be paying their $500,000 ransom and welcomes their threats of violence towards his shrew of a wife, Barbara (Bette Midler): “In the spirit of compassion and mercy, we decided not to kill her just yet.”
Stone has his own motives, besides dropping half a million (and the price only goes down from there), for not paying his wife’s ransom. As he informs his mistress, Carol (Anita Morris) in the opening scene, he married Barbara for her family’s money. When her father held onto dear life for years, he decided to make his own fortune in the fashion industry. Tempted by a life with Carol and Barbara’s growing fortune, he decides to murder Barbara himself but is delayed by the Kessler’s kidnapping attempt. For Stone, it’s a gift from the Gods. While Barbara torments the kidnappers with the shrill threat that Stone will “explode” when he hears about her predicament, the only thing that does is the cork off of a champagne bottle. Bye-bye, Barbara!
Yet, the plot only gets more gleefully convoluted from there. It turns out that Carol is two-timing Stone with the moronic Earl Mott (Bill Pullman), an RV living schmuck who has a pair of goldfish named after Miami Vice characters. Carol, thinking that Stone really has killed Barbara and has invented the kidnapping plot as a means of misdirecting the police, attempts to blackmail him with a videotape of what she believes is the murder. Earl, however, only caught the Los Angeles police chief (William G. Schilling) making violent, awkward love to a prostitute. It is fitting that the film’s theatrical poster pictured a giant screw, as screenwriter Launer always seems to have one more turn up his sleeve and the result is a hell of a lot of fun.
While the plot may sound incredibly cynical, producing a film that is the cinematic equivalent to a cookie full of arsenic, the screenwriter and directors do a good job of balancing the it out. Sure, Stone, Carol, and Earl are greedy, conniving bastards and they invite our undiluted contempt. However, Ken and Sally are genuinely good people who have been unjustfully wronged by Stone’s “greed is good” mentality. Their feeble attempts to be ruthless only make them more endearing to us, especially given the chops of the obliviously cute Reinhold and Slater who are perfectly counter-balanced by DeVito’s slimy prick. Midler, undoubtedly, has the most difficult part to play as she evolves as a shrill, materialistic, fat, shrill, bitch into an empathetic, empowered, and, ultimately, sexy woman. We cannot help but feel bad for her as she realizes Sam’s motives in a speech in which she laments being “Kidnapped by K-Mart.”
I’m ambivalent to write much more about the film, as both comedies and crime films play better to an unsuspecting viewer. The film may, like Leonard’s novel The Switch, be an overlooked gem with incredibly simple but effective pleasures. Yet, while there are striking similarities between the two texts, comedy provides the driving tone of Ruthless People while Leonard keeps it at a soft smorzando, favoring the wife’s crisis and her own insecurities rather than the absurdity of the situation (at least, if memory serves—-it’s been a good ten years since I’ve read the book). Despite my admiration of Leonard’s work, Ruthless People occupies a more prevalent position in my long-term memory. It’s a smart, pitch-black comedy, a near-extinct creature at this period in time, and one of my favorite films of the 80s.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.