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Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker trade parody for farce

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Noah Baumbach’s new film, Mistress America, is a modern farce. Gear up for it with five days of classic ones.

Ruthless People (1986)

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team (brothers David and Jerry Zucker plus collaborator Jim Abrahams) is known for their gag-a-minute style of genre spoofs, perfected early with Airplane! and imitated (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) many times since. But Ruthless People, the last of only four movies directed by the full trio and the only one credited to an outside screenwriter, isn’t a spoof at all, but a 1986 Touchstone Pictures comedy featuring studio mainstay Bette Midler.


Midler plays Barbara Stone, wife of “spandex miniskirt king” and millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito), who is plotting to murder her in classic Danny DeVito fashion—unsubtly, gleefully, and motivated by money. (For many DeVito characters, the desire to commit murder is treated as a goofy quirk.) When Barbara is intercepted by desperate kidnappers Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater before he can carry out his plan, Sam is delighted by their threats to kill her unless he pays them $500,000. This inadvertently calls the bluff of the kidnappers, who turn out to be relatively nice people, seeking revenge for an idea Stone ripped off from them. They have no intention of killing Barbara, even when she turns out to be a particularly difficult captive. (“I can’t even sell retail,” Reinhold admits.) Matters are further complicated by Sam’s mistress Carol (Anita Morris) plotting against him with the help of her extremely dim boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman).

The number of coincidences and misunderstandings involved throughout the film could have turned Ruthless People into what Roger Ebert called an “idiot plot”: a story one simple explanation away from collapse. But the screenplay by Dale Launer (also credited on this week’s Watch This entry Blind Date, as well as old-fashioned and effective broad comedies of this period like Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Jonathan Lynn’s My Cousin Vinny) twists its characters around cleverly, making the idiocy part of the fun. This is a crime farce where none of the characters manage to be accused of their actual crimes, and are instead constantly answering for the crimes of others. The ZAZ team keeps everything moving along without getting as exclamatory in their gag delivery as the likes of Airplane! or Top Secret!

Those spoofs depend on the actors’ collective ability to stay deadpan and straight-faced with gags, big and small, unfolding around them. Here, the performances have more room to go a little nuts; Midler, as the force of nature who dedicates herself to fitness while in captivity, certainly does. But there are quieter funny moments, like the way DeVito turns polite during the phone call when he realizes someone else has saved him the trouble of losing his wife, and Pullman’s work as a man whose stupidity is not quite aggressive but hilariously inexorable. Even with plenty of crass dialogue, there’s something good-natured about Ruthless People. It turns out the dopey feel-good vibe so common to big ’80s comedies goes down easier with a little murder plotting.

Availability: Ruthless People is available on DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the usual digital outlets.

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