A Flailing Disney branch out for a wildly-plotted slice of ’80s excess
A word of warning: if you haven’t already seen Ruthless People, then it’s best to go in cold, because it’s a deliciously, deviously plotted film, the kind that starts off with a great hook, gleefully allows itself to get tangled with all kinds of left-field threads and yet still manages to keep it all together. The poster is clever (an enormous golden screw resembling an Academy Award) but ultimately gives nothing away. Of course, the trailer, in classic old-school fashion, gives almost everything away, so try to avoid that. The same goes for Luther Vandross’ Give Me the Reason music video, which hilariously and awkwardly edits Luther into scenes of the movie, spoiling the entire plot in the process. All I’ll reveal in this opening paragraph is that fraudulent entrepreneur Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is a first-class bastard who wants to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler). He only married her because her father was ‘very, very rich and very, very sick’, but before he can throw her off a cliff and get her money, he comes home to find out that she’s been kidnapped, and of course, he doesn’t want her back. He certainly doesn’t want to pay the ransom that will save her life. From then on the plot doesn’t just thicken, it tangles, it twists and it gets messy. This is a proper spaghetti bolognese of a movie. And I love the taste. From here on in I’ll be happily spoiling the hell out of this movie, so continue with caution.
A lesser film than this would have been happy to stay on the road laid out by the above plot hook, but here we get the added complication of Sam’s mistress Carol (Anita Morris), who plans to blackmail him by videotaping the disposal of Barbara’s body. Problem is, her idiotic other lover Earl (Bill Pullman) ends up filming a random stranger having very loud sex with a prostitute, whose fake screams of passion he mistakes for Barbara’s death throes. Thinking that they’ve got Sam under their thumb, Carol and Earl send Sam a copy of the tape in order to blackmail him, only to be horrified when Sam, who thinks Carol has sent him a relatively harmless sex tape, responds with glee at this ‘message’. Carol, terrified at hearing from Sam that she’ll receive the same treatment as the woman in the video, sends the evidence to the chief of police (William G. Schilling), not realising that HE is the man in the video, who in turn assumes he’s the one being blackmailed…
It’s a testament to the writing that all of this unfurls with such delectable precision and sleight of hand and the resulting chaos never becomes confusing, only spectacularly funny. There’s also the matter of the kidnappers themselves — the good-hearted Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater), who were screwed over by Sam when he stole the designs for Sandy’s spandex mini-skirt business and made a fortune in the process. They may be kidnappers, but they’re actually the nicest people in the whole film and are way in over their heads, not least because Barbara proves to be a nightmare hostage, belittling, attacking and scaring the two of them with ease. For a 90-minute film (the perfect length for a comedy — trust me, it’s official) there’s a lot of ground here to cover, but the plot hits the ground running, with complications already occurring a mere five minutes in. This could have played out as a straight thriller, but the innate farcical nature of it all means it lends itself to comedy much better.
Sandy: He didn’t pay.
Barbara: He didn’t pay? So now what?
Sandy: So now we’re dropping our price again to $10,000.
Barbara: Do I understand this correctly? I’m being marked down? What is this? The Bargain Basement [Starts crying] I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!
Speaking of comedy, it may be full of laughs, but this one isn’t for the kids. It’s a deliciously wicked affair that gets a lot of mileage out of its brilliant concept, and positively revels in its bad taste, but never to the point when it becomes unpleasantly vulgar. Saying that, you might take exception to the tender act of lovemaking being referred to as a ‘poke in the whiskers’, or the inventive use of a Dustbuster, so it’s all down to personal preference, I suppose.
This was the only non-spoof movie to be directed by the formidable triple threat of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (it was also their last film together as a directorial trio) and proof they were just as great at making straight-up comedies as they were mercilessly parodying existing genres, as previously evidenced in Airplane! and Top Secret! It was also one of the first films to be released by Disney’s Touchstone Films offshoot (and the last before they rebranded themselves as Touchstone Pictures), whose product was aimed at an older audience. This broadening of their target audience makes sense: Disney in the early 1980s was entering its least popular period. Their animated output, despite consisting of films that ended up with a devoted following, was at the time being dismissed as a far cry from their halcyon days, while their live-action material was suffering the same fate. In regards to family entertainment, Hollywood was giving ’80s audiences what they wanted without any help from Disney.
The films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, not to mention unexpected smashes like Ghostbusters, were bigger, more advanced and hipper than anything Disney were delivering. Even when Disney attempted to push boundaries with the dazzling Tron, they failed to find much of an audience. Other live-action films like The Black Hole and Something Wicked This Way Comes were box office failures too. So Walt and Co. really needed to up their game, and one of their gambits was to forget the kids altogether. Not entirely, of course—Touchstone’s first film was Ron Howard’s Splash (1984), a family comedy (with mermaids), but one that might have been regarded as too mildly risqué had it been released under the Disney banner. That was a big hit, and Touchstone were on an immediate role—even films that didn’t set the records alight received critical acclaim and the odd Academy Award nomination, with Jessica Lange up for Best Actress for 1984‘s Country (she didn’t win).
However, 1986‘s satirical comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills was notable for being first Touchstone film (and by extension for the first Disney film) to receive an R-rating in the US (it was a ’15’ in the UK), thanks to its moderate lashings of sex, nudity and bad language. Its success paved the way for even more blatantly adult fare, with the next example being Ruthless People, which was ruder, cruder and even more successful. Critics loved it, which is a rarity for a film of this kind, and on a $7 million budget it made $71 million overall, which is very impressive indeed. And yet it seems to have fallen by the wayside. It doesn’t seem to have been screened on UK telly in ages, which is a shame because it has dated remarkably well, and the big reason is because it has a great, great script by Dale Launer. Yeah, the sets and the fashions are very much of their time (one reason why I love it so) but the plot still engages and the jokes still land. Also, another more depressing reason the film remains fresh is that ruthless people are most definitely still here in the 21st century; blimey, some of them are in charge. Being an arsehole sadly never seems to go out of fashion.
Carol: You get that tape of Sam Stone finishing off his wife, and that man will give us anything we want for the rest of his life!
Earl Mott: Yeah! Then we’re off to Haiti.
Carol: Not Haiti, Tahiti!
Earl Mott: Oh… I knew that.
The cast is an absolute joy. Danny DeVito has delivered some brilliant, inimitable performances throughout the years — for example, his turn as The Penguin in Batman Returns is remarkably grotesque, sad and funny, but his turn in Ruthless People is just as perfect. He doesn’t have any redeeming features, but he remains a delightfully entertaining protagonist. Look at his facial expression gradually change as he’s told over the phone that Barbara’s been kidnapped and that if he doesn’t pay her ransom she’ll be killed — he’s like a child who’s been given the keys to the sweet shop. This character could have been obnoxiously repellent, but DeVito infuses him with such sneaky, surprising charm that it is a real pleasure to watch his plan inadvertently come together and then later fall apart spectacularly.
Midler, fresh from Down and Out in Beverly Hills, is an absolute riot as Barbara, be it when she’s threatening others with chainsaw enemas, inelegantly exercising whilst chained to the bed and regularly turning the tables on her kidnappers. Reinhold and Slater, despite the former’s memorably obnoxious performance as yuppie-scum Gerald in Gremlins, were always two of the most sweetly cute actors of the eighties, and as such are perfectly cast as the world’s kindest and gentlest abductors. They wouldn’t hurt a fly. Actually, scratch that – Ken does step on a spider, but that’s about as far as he goes. They’ve been pushed to extremes by the cruelty of others, but deep down we know they’ll never be able to follow through with their threats. Of course, the tension in the film comes from the fact that Sam wants them to carry out their threat – for him, it’s not a worry that they’ll kill Barbara, it’s that they won’t. Morris makes an entertainingly treacherous, if regularly misinformed Carol, who tries to double-cross Sam but doesn’t reckon for the outright incompetence of Earl, a wonderfully dopey Pullman in his film debut. To be honest, Carol really should have had her suspicions when she saw Earl’s passport photo, which could very well be the pictorial dictionary definition of ‘gormless’.
Like many films rooted in the 80s, Ruthless People is at once celebratory and critical of the whole ‘greed is good’ ethos — the film is on one level pure candy-coloured product, its décor a riot of flashy, terrible art and gaudy furniture, nicely filmed by future Speed director Jan de Bont. It’s a total crowd-pleaser and also boasts a tie-in soundtrack that sounds exactly what you’d imagine a pop soundtrack from the mid-eighties to sound like (lots of big drums, fretless bass, loud backing vocals, the works) and a fun score by Michel Colombier. It also kicks off with that perennial 80s staple, the animated credit sequence. Sometimes films would chuck in animated titles because, you know, it was the thing to do back then. The deployment of this method really works here, perfectly nailing the twisted sense of humour and black comedy we’re settling down for, not to mention the ultra-garish use of colour. We also get a title song! We don’t get these so much anymore, do we? Hilariously, it’s performed by the one and only Mick Jagger, whose salacious delivery is perfect for the song’s itinerary of sins.
In the mould of gangster movies, Ruthless People revels in the bad behaviour of its protagonists and knows we will too, and yet it also has real heart, thanks to Ken and Sandy. The former works at a hi-fi store, but is just too honest for his own good, exposing his businesses unofficial policy to trick insecure men with tiny penises to buy compensatory, over-sized speakers. Later, at his lowest ebb, he literally says ‘fuck it’ and begins a successful, shameless hustle of a young metalhead, pitching him the biggest, loudest sound system in the world, but upon seeing his pregnant partner he can’t follow through with the sale and realises that ultimately, he’s a nice guy. And where do nice guys finish in this most cutthroat of decades? Yep, exactly.
So it follows that in order to win the day, Ken and Sandy must also be ruthless, but they do so by their own standards, and with a little help from Barbara. In the end they win without selling their souls. Almost everyone else here is unashamedly corrupt, especially the police chief who frames Sam for murder when he’s threatened with exposure over that videotape. Even the general public are no better at being decent people — when Ken fakes his own death and drives into the sea at the end, no one seems willing to help him (the excuse being that the water’s too cold to risk it) until they see notes of cash floating up to the surface, after which they all dive in. Oh, and there’s a murderer on the loose too, known as the Bedroom Killer (J.E Freeman). His presence in the story may seem arbitrary at first, but it all comes together at the end. So yes, it’s all rather crude and tasteless, but delivered with such effervescence and cheekiness that only the truly prudish would be offended. It has a wicked centre, but not a mean one, and certainly not a dark one — whereas the tragic ending of DeVito’s The War of the Roses made perfect sense, a similarly downbeat ending would not work here. Instead, the film ends with a trio of happy people running along the beach at sunset, with Sam getting his deserved comeuppance: I’m assuming he’s still alive after Barbara kicks him off the pier. We never find out.
Interestingly, Ruthless People is currently certified ’15’ in the UK, which makes sense in today’s less censorious cinematic climate (crikey, that’s a lot of ‘c’s), but I do miss the time when it was an ’18’ — it made the film feel more risqué and forbidden to me as a youngster. Yet at the same time an ’18’ just wouldn’t suit this film now. It actually feels rather innocent and sweet-natured these days, not to mention extraordinarily self-disciplined with its plotting. I can imagine a remake (I’m genuinely surprised it hasn’t happened yet) going too far with the crudeness, overcomplicating the plot and letting its cast indulge themselves. Or maybe it would go the other way and aim for the PG-13 crowd, neutering the naughtiness and becoming toothless as a result. Toothless People, maybe? Now, I’d really like to take credit for that title, but ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic actually recorded a parody track with that very name in 1986. Seriously, it exists. Check it out, but not before watching one of the most delightfully funny comedies of the 1980s first.