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Ruthless People (June 20/02)

Comedies made for grown-ups are becoming more and more scarce. With the proliferation of Adam Sandler flicks (not that they're bad; far from it) and the various kiddie laugh-a-thons that pop up now and then (including the recent suckfest Scooby Doo), trying to find a comedy geared towards adults is just about impossible. What a pleasure it was, then, to revisit Ruthless People on DVD; a hilarious comedy that's in no way appropriate for little children.

As the film opens, cut-throat businessman Sam Stone (played with ruthless glee by Danny DeVito) is telling his mistress how much he hates his wife and how he plans to kill her that same night. Upon arriving home and with every intention of doing the dastardly deed, he receives a phone call informing him that his wife has been kidnapped. He's told in no uncertain terms that she will be killed if he doesn't pay a ransom or if he notifies the police or media. Try and guess what he does. Meanwhile, Sam's mistress (played by Anita Baker) and her idiotic boyfriend (Bill Pullman, in an early role) are planning to film Sam's supposed murder of his wife and blackmail him with the tape. Needless to say, when they arrive at the murder site, Sam's not there - but someone else is. Meanwhile (yep, again. There's a lot of stuff going on here), the two kidnappers (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) are becoming exasperated by Sam's antics and by his wife's refusal to co-operate with them.

Ruthless People was directed by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (or ZAZ for short), the same guys behind Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Though they didn't write the film, ZAZ's irreverent style is certainly hard to miss. One of the funniest gags in the film occurs when Sam learns that his wife has been kidnapped. DeVito's face initially shows an expression of confusion, which slowly turns into a look of all-out happiness as he begins to put things together. The film is comprised of similar jokes that work just as well, mostly due to the deft comedic timing among the actors and ZAZ.

And while I'm on the subject of the actors, not a single person is miscast here. Even Bette Midler, playing Sam's wife, manages to shed her outrageous and larger-than-life persona for this initially dumpy and overweight house frau type. And while Reinhold and Pullman are very good, the movie belongs to DeVito. He's always excelled at playing folks with loose morals and the character of Sam fits DeVito like a tailor-made glove. The somewhat conventional ending ensures that Sam won't be walking happily into the sunset, but it's certainly appropriate that such a scummy character winds up as he does.

Really, though, this is a movie that lives or dies on the strength of it's jokes. And luckily, a large number of Ruthless People's jokes work and work well. When it comes to making a successful comedy, that's all that really matters.

out of

© David Nusair