WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Cheating businessman Sam Spade plots to kill his loud, brash wife and is only too delighted when a pair of unlikely kidnappers threaten to do the job for him. Of course he’s not handing over the ransom money! But when his mistress inadvertently blackmails the police chief into arresting him, Sam suddenly finds the tables turned. Will anyone come out of this with their dignity intact, or more importantly, the money?
From the instant the credits begin, this film is resolutely eighties: primary colours everywhere, zigzag styling, synthetic music, big hair and a brilliantly nasty little story about greed and lust. Danny DeVito is Sam Spade, detailing to his Mistress Carol (Anita Morris) his plan to get rid of lumpy, blousy wife Barbara (Bette Midler). Sam doesn’t know two things: firstly, that Carol plans to use this information to blackmail Sam with a video of the deed made by her young and dumb boyfriend Earl (a bleached Bill Pullman); secondly, that poor young couple Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), the latter a fashion designer whose idea for a Spandex mini-skirt was stolen by Spade, plan to kidnap the (as they think) beloved wife for $500,000.
Naturally, Sam refuses to hand over the money and the Kesslers are forced to drop their price, but complications arise as he pretends to go along with the police investigation. Earl’s video, which everyone takes for the ghastly murder, turns out to be the police chief Harry Benton’s noisy indiscretion with a prostitute, making him vulnerable to Carol’s demand that Sam should be arrested. Even worse for Sam, Barbara’s hostility to her kidnappers melts away as she shapes up and learns of her husband’s refusal to pay. It all comes down to a showdown that can only turn out messily.
DeVito fills Sam with unashamed ghastliness, inviting comparisons between Ruthless People and films like Heartbreakers, which I dislike with a passion. But the differences are plentiful: here, you feel that Sam has driven Ken and Sandy to their actions, De Vito being the perfect pantomime villain to whom you can only wish worse things would happen. Also, despite her vulgar demeanour, you feel sorry for Barbara and you’re glad when she gains self-confidence.
And despite the dodgy ethics of captivity leading to weight loss, the jokes are also much better in Ruthless People, not solely centred below the waist. In general it’s as subtle as a brick, but there are still some nice Zucker/Abrahams touches, such as the police playing tennis in the background at the Spades’ home or Benton’s “World’s Greatest Husband” mug. The plot gets satisfyingly convoluted, and although the low-speed car chase at the end is something of a humdrum climax, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, which is as much as you can ask for.
De Vito and Midler carry off the acting spoils with ease, but Judge Reinhold is effectively frustrated as kind-hearted kidnapper Ken. Helen Slater takes a while to warm up as his mousy wife, but grows into the part when she befriends Barbara. Special mention must be made of Pullman, whose squeamish Earl is a marvellously dense character. It may or may not be a role he looks back on with much fondness, but his debut is a great comic performance.
Ruthless People is the sort of broad, low-brow film that is never going to win awards (that said, Midler won a Golden Globe for her performance), but although it is often nasty – especially to poodles – it is only mean to people who ultimately deserve it. More than that, the funny bits hit a lot more than they miss: if only the same could be said about a lot more so-called comedies.