Ruthless People (1986)

Ruthless People Movie Poster (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: His wife gets kidnapped.

Sam (Danny DeVito) wants to kill his shrewish wife Barbara (Bette Midler) so he can get her inheritance, but is unable to when she is kidnapped by a young couple (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater) who demand ransom. Sam decides not to pay it, but mistakenly tells his lover (Anita Morris) about his plans and she with the help of her secret boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman) scheme to use this information to extort him, but then a neighborhood psycho known as The Bedroom Killer (J.E. Freeman) throws everything into chaos by threatening to kill all of them.

The script was written by Dale Launer who at the time was a struggling salesman at a sound appliance store much like Judge Reinhold’s character in the movie, but like with many scripts written by first-timers there’s too many characters and a plot-heavy scenario that throws in one irony after another until it gets convoluted. Too much emphasis is placed on the concept and not enough on the characters with an end result that has no point to it other than just being very crass and over-the-top.

Everyone onscreen is simply a flimsy caricature used to propel the elaborate plot along and nothing more. The only one that is likable is Helen Slater whose nervous wide-eyed gaze makes her presence memorable. The film though would’ve worked better had it focused solely on the contrasting couples as well as having Reinhold and Slater shown working together more instead of Reinhold taking over and pushing Slater off to the side until she becomes almost forgotten.

DeVito is enjoyable, but Midler is annoying especially with her exaggerated facial expressions.  I also didn’t buy into the idea that this woman who is otherwise quite cynical and sarcastic would be naïve enough to believe that her husband still loved her and supposedly ‘worshipped the ground’ that she walked on even when he really didn’t. After living with somebody for 15 years, which is how long their marriage apparently was, you get a pretty clear view of your partner’s flaws no matter how hard they try to camouflage it. Even the most wide-eyed of people would’ve been at the very least suspicious that he might have ulterior motives as there’s always red flags and the fact that this lady was completely oblivious to them only proves how poorly fleshed-out the characters here are.

Spoiler Alert!

The story is overloaded with loopholes too. For instance Anita Morris and her lover Bill Pullman decide to play the tape of what they think is Sam murdering his wife on a VCR inside a TV-equipment store where all the other customers can see it, but why play something publicly that could potentially get them into a lot of trouble? If Pullman was able to afford a video camera, as he was the one who recorded the incident to begin with, then why couldn’t he also afford his own VCR?

It also takes too long for the police to suspect that Sam may have something to do with his wife’s disappearance even though in reality the spouse is always the prime suspect from the get-go. Having 8 police cars openly tailing Reinhold in hopes that he will lead them to his hideout is pretty stupid too. The idea is to not allow the suspect to be aware that you’re following him because otherwise he will just lead the police on a wild-goose-chase, which is exactly what he does here and any savvy veteran cop would’ve predicted that. I realize the filmmakers thought it would be ‘funny’ visually seeing all these police cars chasing the suspect, but it’s instead nonsensical. Every movie needs to have at least one person who is grounded and sensible even if everyone else is kooky. Having everyone behaving foolishly makes the story inane and unbelievable.

Reinhold’s ability to escape from his submerged vehicle after he drives it into a lake is equally questionable. Putting on a breathing apparatus underwater as he apparently does would be quite difficult if not impossible and how exactly was he able to make it seem like it was the Bedroom Killer (who was killed earlier in the film) as the driver of the getaway vehicle instead of himself? For that to happen the killer would’ve had to have been sitting in the driver’s seat where Reinhold was previously. Are we to believe that Reinhold had the dead killer’s body in the trunk of his car and while underwater somehow able to get the corpse from the trunk into the driver’s seat before the police got to it? The logistics of this is dubious, which is why having a scene done underwater showing him going through all of this should’ve been inserted in, but unfortunately isn’t.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall despite a few chuckles it’s a superficial mess and nowhere near the acerbic, dark satire that it likes to think it is. I disliked the gaudy Memphis style furniture used in DeVito’s home as well, which gives the production too much of a campy look.  Billy Joel’s ‘Modern Woman’, which gets played over the closing credits, seems to have nothing to do with the main theme and completely out of place. I also couldn’t stand the dresses that Helen Slater’s character designs. The movie acts like she has ‘talent’ and Midler really likes wearing them even though it looks like something you’d put on a clown and nothing I’d ever want to be seen in and I’d feel sorry for anyone who did wear them.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 27, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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