Ruthless People Review
Rich tycoon Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is ready to kill his wife (Bette Midler), making off with all their money and assets, whilst promising his new mistress (Anita Morris) untold wealth, when, arriving home, ready to put his plan into action, Sam notices his wife is nowhere to be found. Restless that his plan isn’t going to go ahead, he almost gives up hope for day when the phone rings. At the other end of the phone a voice tells Sam that his wife has been kidnapped and if he doesn’t pay a hefty ransom demand, they will kill his wife. Sensing someone else will do his dirty work for him, Sam ignores the ransom. All would appear to be going in his favour but unbeknownst to him, the kidnappers – Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), are probably the most inept criminals in the world and have no intention of killing anybody. Couple this with his wife’s constant neurosis, his mistress’ attempts to set up Sam for a murder wrap so she can get his money for herself, and her boyfriend’s (Bill Pullman) desperate, failing attempts to help her.
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker are renowned for their slapstick parody in such classics as Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Here however, they are much more restrained keeping the comedy dialogue driven rather than physical. That’s not to say there isn’t any physical comedy; in terms of most films, there is an abundance of it, but compared to something like Jerry Zucker’s recent outing Rat Race, it is relatively kept to a minimum. This is because of two major reasons, 1) because they’ve got such a good script by Dale Launer to work with and, 2) the performances of the actors are simply wonderful, making over-the-top physical hysterics overkill, with the actors delivering some killer comedic lines with comic perfection. Also possibly, the Zucker brothers and Abrahams wanted a project that was driven by character humour rather than situation parody, adding a dimension to their career highlights.
Dale Launer, who also wrote two more favourites My Cousin Vinny and the wonderful Steve Martin/Michael Caine vehicle Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, has the ability to keep a film’s pace briskly moving forward while maintaining various main characters places in the plot. What we lose in real ‘depth’, we gain in charisma and characterisation. From Sam’s wife Barbara and her constant grumbling about her weight, (something that becomes more important than her life), to Bill Pullman as a reckless crook who wouldn’t know his knee from his elbow, Launer keeps the characters fresh and wonderfully endearing. He also never lets the jokes lay dormant, keeping them coming constantly without giving the audience much time to breath.
This film is all about the characters and simply would not work without solid performances, yet what we get is much more. Bette Midler is hilariously neurotic throughout, snapping some cold, spiteful quips at her kind hearted kidnappers. She has an uncanny knack of making some frightening facial expressions but balances these with restrained dryness, one minute she’ll be demonstrating what it looks and sounds like to be sitting in an electric chair going to your death, the next she’ll merely pass off a line about having urine injected into her because it promotes weight loss. The other stand out is Danny DeVito who is on top form. His sniveling, desperate businessman is a cross between the high-and-mighty lawyer of The War Of The Roses and the scheming, cunning Penguin of Batman Returns. The little man can have you loving and hating him in equal measure, and most of the time he does it at the same time. Another superb turn comes from Bill Pullman who, although only having a small role, steals ever scene he’s in with his dry, dumbness.
Ruthless People is an excellent comedy that has perhaps been lost in the shadows of the directors more prominent work, and it is a shame because there is a lot to like here. Not many films can maintain so many characters, while keeping things moving, but this one certainly can. It has its few flaws like a serial killer subplot that ends up feeling tacked on, but all in all it works, with the main and most important thing being, that it is very funny indeed.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. The first thing you see is the blue ‘Touchstone Films’ logo moving along the screen, and unfortunately you are immediately viewer to a lot of grain and print damage. In the blue band of Touchstone’s ident, you can clearly see the print’s age damage, which doesn’t leave you with much hope for the rest of the film. The credit sequence, which is animated, confirms fears, with colours a little muted, a lot of grain, and a distinct lack of sharpness or detail. However, when we eventually see true photography things pick up. The image is a little sharper than at first feared yet during darker scenes it again falls into unacceptable territory. Grain is also a problem during some darker scenes but overall, it doesn’t become too obtrusive and is mainly due to the natural characteristics of the film stock. Colours are never as true and natural as they should be, but I didn’t notice any bleeding and things stay where they should be. Unfortunately, digital artifacts are also noticeable.
The sound is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0. This is much better in comparison to the picture. While the film doesn’t gain from full 5.1 surround, what we get is a fairly full bodied, ambient sound. As it is a dialogue driven film, it is unlikely that a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix would have offered anything more, especially without a new remix. There is good separation between the channels here, and in one particular, split screen phone call, each character’s dialogue is clearly heard in the corresponding right and left speakers. The sound doesn’t show the age damage the print did, as it is clear and easily audible. Dialogue is crisp and sound effects aren’t drowned out by music or other audio intrusions.
This film is one you can return to over and over again, without losing interest or enjoyment, and without the jokes ever becoming tired or unfunny. It breezes along a good pace, and for 90 minutes it provides its viewer with easy-going, feel good fun. It is just unfortunate the film is given such a bad video transfer to DVD. The picture is by no means unwatchable, as it is a step up from VHS, but those who are viewing their DVD’s on particularly large televisions and projectors will notice its problems distinctly. It is also poor on the distributor’s side, that the film is given no extra features, not even a theatrical trailer. Overall, this DVD is a bit of an oddity, as the film is great but it isn’t backed up by extra features and has an image quality that is nothing more than poor. I’d love to recommend the film, but I can’t recommend the DVD.