Monday, June 27, 2011


What the hell's the point of being a decent person?

By Edward Copeland
SAM STONE (Danny DeVito): Carol, did I ever tell you why I married her?
CAROL (Anita Morris): Yes, Sam, you told me many, many…
SAM: Her father was very, very rich, and very, very sick. The doctors assured me he'd be dead any minute. There wasn't a second to lose! I rushed right out and married the boss's daughter. He was so sick, it was like the Angel of Death was sitting in the room with him, watching the clock. They pulled the plug on him…he wheezed and shook for about an hour…and then…he stabilized. The son-of-a-bitch just got older and sicker. And older, and sicker, and older and sicker…
WAITER (Arturo Bonilla): (interrupting) More coffee, sir?
SAM: No!
[The waiter leaves]
SAM: I couldn't wait any longer, so I went out and made my own fortune. The old fart hung in there for 15 years. Finally died of natural causes. I want the rest of that money! His money, her money, it's my money!
I had to live with that squealing, corpulent little toad all these years. God, I hate that woman. I — I — I hate the way she licks stamps! I hate her furniture! And I hate that little sound she makes when she sleeps.
[Sam imitates a whining nasal sound]
SAM: Ugh! And that filthy little shitbag dog of hers…Muffy!
CAROL: Aren't you scared?
SAM: Scared? Hell, no. I'm looking forward to it. My only regret, Carol, is that the plan isn't more violent.

So sets in motion what is in essence a classical farce, only this has been updated for its era — 1986 — and it's filled to the brim with sex, violence and vulgarity and Ruthless People remains as sleek and funny as it was when it was released 25 years ago today. The film also was significant in another way. After their gargantuan hit Airplane!, their comedic style didn't transfer well to TV with the short-lived Police Squad or even in terms of box office for their followup feature Top Secret! Ruthless People marked the last time the team of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams joined forces as directors on the same film, only this time they made a "normal comedy" free of puns, silliness and the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks style that made their career. The trio didn't even write the screenplay, but it didn't prevent Ruthless People from being a frenetic laugh riot. Some habits die hard though, so watch the end credits closely and you'll find they couldn't resist tossing some gags in there.

Before we get to the restaurant where fashion tycoon Sam Stone explains to his mistress Carol his plans to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), we get one of the most fun animated credit sequences I've ever seen. It's set to a pretty lousy title song written by Mick Jagger, Daryl Hall and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and sung by Jagger, but the visuals prove so striking that the song hardly matters. Fortunately, the remainder of the film gets welcome musical accompaniment from the late Michel Colombier, whose bouncy, farcical score fits perfectly with the film's town. The composer died of cancer in 2004, but he wrote many eclectic movie scores for broad comedies, dramas and thrillers, including some quite good ones such as 1984's Against All Odds and 1992's Deep Cover. Let's get back to that animated credit sequence though before we move on, because it is memorable. Matt Singer in a February piece on the 50 greatest opening title sequences regretted omitting Ruthless People's and other animated credits, even suggesting that perhaps animated ones needed their own list. The sequence is on YouTube, but you can't embed it, so click here to watch it.

Before Sam Stone can realize his dream of going to his garishly decorated home, chloroform his wife and help dispatch her from this world, he comes home to a bit of a surprise. After an encounter with the much-hated Muffy, Barbara seems nowhere to be found so Sam takes a break, sitting in one of her colorful but very uncomfortable looking chairs when the phone rings. (Kudos must go to art director Donald Woodruff and set decorator Anne D. McCulley for the imaginative look of the Stones' home which seems as if it's been coordinated with the credits created by Sally Cruikshank and costumes we'll see later designed by Rosanna Norton.) A voice on the other end claims to have kidnapped Barbara and if Sam doesn't deliver $500,000, they will kill her. If he contacts the police, they will kill her. If he contacts the media, they will kill her. Sam couldn't be giddier: Someone has taken care of the problem for him and he can't call the police and reporters quick enough. The Ruthless People screenplay was written by Dale Launer, who also wrote the underrated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Cousin Vinny and Blake Edwards' terrible Blind Date starring Bruce Willis, Willis' first film after gaining stardom on Moonlighting. Launer has publicly distanced himself from having anything to do with Blind Date, saying it "was rewritten by so many people, if you hated it, it's not my fault and if you liked it, I can't take credit for it." Launer certainly deserves the credit for the tight Ruthless People script though.

Unfortunately for Sam, Barbara's abductors aren't nearly as ruthless as he is or they'd like him to believe. They are a nearly broke young married couple named Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater) who really are in it for revenge more than the money. It seems that Sandy is a fashion designer who invented "the spandex miniskirt" which Sam stole and passed off as his own idea, even taking Ken's meager life savings in the deal as Stone made a fortune. Now, Sandy doesn't work and Ken sells stereos — badly. They also believe Barbara was Sam's partner in ripping them off. One thing is for certain: It doesn't take much time with Barbara for the Kesslers to develop the same feelings toward her that her husband has. A lot of sources try to pass Ruthless People off as a variation of O Henry's classic story "The Ransom of Red Chief," but that's not really accurate. The Kesslers never end up offering to pay Sam to take Barbara back (though they do lower her price when they get the idea he isn't going to pay), but Sam would never pay anything and through the course of the story's twists, Barbara changes and ends up being the Kesslers' ally. In the beginning though, she certainly isn't. She's foul-mouthed nasty and prone to hit and kick at every chance she can. As Ken tells Sandy, "Well, let's face it, she's not Mother Teresa. Gandhi would have strangled her."

Like the best comedies, Ruthless People runs about 90 minutes, but that doesn't mean it isn't stuffed full of the complications, twists, turns and misunderstandings essential for a farce no matter what era it's set in. In addition to the kidnappers who aren't as ruthless as they want to be and the husband who hopes if he doesn't meet the abductors' demands, they'll kill his wife for him, it turns out Sam's mistress Carol has plans of her own. She's involved with a true dimwit named Earl Mott (Bill Pullman in his film debut) and plans to secretly film Sam killing Barbara and then blackmail him for a fortune. When she sends her dumb lover to the site of the planned murder to videotape, unaware that Barbara has been kidnapped, he records loud raucous car sex between a man and a hooker — with screams so loud he assumes the woman is in her death throes and can't bring himself to watch and see that it isn't Sam. When Earl brings the tape home, Carol has the same reaction to the first scream and can't watch either — she just mails a copy to Sam. When she contacts him, he's delighted by the kinky tape since he actually watched it. When Sam still wants to be a part of Carol's life and mentions how he'd like to do the same things to her that's in that tape, she gets frightened and decides for her own safety she better send that tape to the police chief (William G. Schilling) and tell him to arrest Sam Stone for killing his wife. The chief thinks he's being blackmailed into doing so because he's the man on the tape. Oh, and there's also a serial killer running around called The Bedroom Killer (J.E. Freeman).

Since the ZAZ team directs Ruthless People, for lack of a better word, so ruthlessly and the movie itself has somewhat disappeared into oblivion in the quarter century since its release, I'm not going to spell out exactly how all these strands resolve themselves. The movie moves so fast and you'll likely be laughing so often that the film will be over before you know it. They've assembled an entire cast at the top of their game and it's not often when the "good guys" in a story" are a couple who kidnapped a woman and are holding her for ransom, but they are so inherently decent that they don't have the heart to pull it off. Early on, when Barbara continues to be nasty as hell to Sandy, she gets so upset that Ken finds her crying in the kitchen, upset that Barbara hates her. "You're her kidnapper — she's supposed to hate you," her husband tells her. Seeing how people treat one another and how Sam doesn't seem to give a damn if he gets his wife back, Ken even makes a concerted attempt to become more hardened. "I mean, what the hell's the point of being a decent person when no one is? Let's be assholes and get rich!" Of course, he's saying this as he carefully catches a spider with a magazine and releases it outside — though he goes back out and steps on it. When he tries to apply it to his job selling stereos, talking a kid into financing a huge overpriced system he doesn't need, he folds when he sees he has a young pregnant wife. He tells Sandy later, "I'm no criminal. I can't even sell retail, and that's legal!"

What turns Barbara around is a mere compliment. She refuses to eat much as she's chained to a bed in the basement and spends most of her time working out to exercise programs on television. One day, Sandy off-handedly mentions that she looks really good and might have lost 20 pounds. After multiple fat camps, diets and experimental treatments, nothing had helped Barbara lose weight before. When she wished she had fancy duds to try on, Sandy brings down some of her own designs to try on. Then she learns of how Sam's refused to pay the ransom, which started at $500,000, which Barbara says should be no problem. Then they cut it to $50,000 and he still resisted. Now, he's balking at $10,000. "Do I understand this correctly? I'm being marked down?" Barbara asks before she starts bawling. "I've been kidnapped by K-Mart!" When the newspaper shows up with photos of Sam coupling with Carol, Barbara is ready to help them take Sam for all he's worth.

The climax turns into a hectic wonder, with practically all the players involved, including Earl who tries to interrupt the new ransom handoff to take the money for himself but can't figure out where the voices and shots are coming from (fine performances from the men who function as the farce's straight men, Art Evans and Clarence Felder as police Lts. Bender and Walters). As Mott stands in the middle of the scene, completely befuddled, the cops get what are really their only laugh lines of the entire film. "This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him," Walters says. When Bender announces over the bullhorn that it's the police department and Earl looks up and asks, "Really?" Bender replies, "No, we're the National Rifle Association." It's hard to believe that this was Pullman's film debut and his only previous screen credit was an episode of Cagney & Lacey, because he's hysterical.

Then again, everyone is great. DeVito does another great spin on his sleazy weasel character, only this time one who is well off. Midler works so well in broad comedy and as Reinhold has shown in films such as Beverly Hills Cop and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he's able to balance the naif character with the ability to get laughs quite well.

However, Ruthless People always brings a bit of sadness along with it. By ending the ZAZ directing team, separately the three were never as strong individually as they were as a unit. They only wrote together again on the first Naked Gun. Jerry Zucker went in a completely different direction with the films Ghost and First Knight but hasn't helmed a film since 2001's The Rat Race. David Zucker had one of those 9/11 conversions that turned a former liberal into an archconservative and divides his time between making anti-Democratic films and endless sequels to Scary Movie (He's in pre-production on No. 5). Jim Abrahams has stuck pretty much to where they started with the Hot Shots! movies and Jane Austen's Mafia! with the exceptions of Big Business and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.

We'll always have Airplane! Police Squad, Top Secret, Ruthless People and a lot of The Naked Gun movies though to remember and make us laugh.

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Excellent look back at this 80s comedy, Ed. It's too bad the group broke up after this, but as you say we'll always have this classic set of films. Thanks.
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