I wasn’t old enough to beat the 18 certificate back in 1986, and it’s been a long, long wait for me to finally catch up on Ruthless People, 35 years to be exact. Directed by the Airplane team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, and written by Dale Launer, it’s never been remade or rebooted, and rarely seems to feature on tv or streaming. Turning up on Disney+, I was curious to find out what made this a runaway hit back in the day. Ruthless People is hard to categorise; it’s a sex comedy, but with very little sex, and even though the bad language was a novelty at the time, it’s tame by today’s standards.
The title itself is a joke; the various criminal elements depicted here are anything but ruthless, they’re mainly idiots; the only ruthless character here is a venal L.A. businessman Sam Stone, played by Danny De Vito who is planning to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler). Before he can do so, he tips off his mistress Carol (Anita Morris) about his plans, not realising that she and her partner Earl (Bill Pullman with dyed blonde hair, very Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading) are hoping to video-tape the murder and blackmail Sam. Things get complicated when Sam Stone returns home to find that Barbara has been kidnapped by Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) who are seeking revenge for Sam stealing Sandy’s spandex mini-skirt design. The couple threaten to kill Barbara, which is music to Sam Stone’s ears, and he immediately makes plans to avoid paying the ransom…
Ruthless People has got an obvious plot hole; it’s inconceivable that Carol and Earl don’t check the contents of the video-tape they record before sending it to Sam and subsequently the police. But that kinda fits in with the general theme of incompetence; Ken can’t hardly bear to squash a spider, and Sandy ends up bonding with their captive. Midler is wildly over-the-top as aerobics-obsessed Barbara, but she gives a great comic performance, and the pay-off is ingenious.
Plotting is an underestimated quality in great movies; Ruthless People seems to be somewhat neglected these days, but the goofy shenanigans come up fresh as paint now. Black comedy gets a bad name, there’s too many film-makers who think cruelty to animals or dead bodies will work for a cheap laugh. But Ruthless People feels like the kind of spec script that careers are based on; silly, funny, and amusingly vulgar enough to enjoyably waste 90 minutes with.