When the movie Airplane was released (directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker), it brought on a sea of hopeless imitations that completely missed the core of the initial film. It was as if all wannabe parodists only saw a one-dimensional side of the film, completely missing that it was the serious conviction of the air of ridiculousness that made it all work. It’s like making a Frankenstein movie and taking out the part where he creates the monster — all you’re left with is some doctor in a castle. The gags themselves are only half of the battle.
Airplane may be the film that they will forever follow them to their graves, but nearly 10 years later, they ventured into what would be an all new territory for the directing trio: a film that sought out to spoof nothing. It was a journey into a brand new genre for them. And unlike most cases where a filmmaker decides it’s time to branch out and spread their wings, this one actually worked.
Ruthless People is a film that has absolutely nothing to hide. From the minute that we first meet Danny Devito’s character, there’s no question of his motives. There he sits, across from his mistress, talking about his plans to kill his wife that night. However, when he comes home, chloroform-drenched rag in tow, he discovers that she has been kidnapped. What luck!!
He is overjoyed — somebody else had done the job for him. This is the greatest day of his life. So when the inept-first time kidnappers (led by Judge Reinhold, because it can’t be the 80s without his dopey smiling face) demand a ransom, he finds that he is in no rush to get her back.
What follows is a movie that travels down the darkest road a comedy can travel down: murder. But what makes it funny is that, despite the fact that every single person in the film is self-absorbed and not very likable, is that they’re none-too-bright, either. Everything that, in most films, would be working against them, seems to actually be working out in their favor.
Devito is in true form here. He plays exactly the sort of low-life character that nobody wants to relate with, but deep down, amidst our darkest desires, there he is, lurking. He is the portal into which our hidden demons come out to play, late at night, when everyone else has gone to bed. And once nobody is around to catch it, DeVito dances to his heart’s content. Nobody can quite play sleazy and lousy the way he plays sleazy and lousy.
Bette Midler is no slouch herself in the lousy department, either. She spends the majority of the film kidnapped. She is loud, abrasive, controlling, manipulative, and downright insulting to the race known as human. You can certainly see why DeVito’s character married her, much to his dismay, of course. She spends so much time kidnapped, that she uses it to her advantage, by bulking up and slimming down.
In a universe where the subject material is so grave, the last thing you’d ever expect is to laugh as much as you do. But the laughs are there. It’s the little things that make for the best laughs here however. In one scene, Reinhold picks up a spider ever so gently, places it on his finger, and walks outside. He leans down, places the spider on the ground lovingly, and turns away. He then turns back around, stomps on the spider repeatedly, and heads back inside. This says everything about these characters. They are the most indecisive fools with profoundly contradicting motives. It’s only their foolishness that makes the film work, and the excessive magnitudes at which they fail. You laugh at them. You can’t help it. They can’t help who they are.
Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker set a new standard for the way in which we view comedy. Here, they prove that they can provide so much more than just a parody. What we see here is a reflective mirror held up to the human condition. Everybody is so quick to want something. Once we get it, we discover that it’s not all that we’ve ever wanted. What we get doesn’t seem to make us as happy as we thought we’d be. We’re still not 100% satisfied. It’s a film about motives, and the decisions we make.
Ruthless People is a film that was critically praised in its time, and it does stand to the test of time. But when people talk about the “great dark comedies,” it never seems to be on the list. It has a lot going for it, so one can only wonder why this film is not as revered and remembered as it ought to be.