1986 in Film – Ruthless People

Release Date: June 27th
Box Office: $68,508,328

Many things have been given to the world by the Nolan Batman films, some good and some bad. One of the things is the idea that is voiced by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight (2008) that you either die a hero or live to be the villain.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker.

Now, you may ask why I’m bringing them up here. After all, these three created two of the very best comedies in Airplane! (1980) and Police Squad! (1982). Heroes, yeah? Unarguable.

We’ll see.

Between those two films the team, also known as ZAZ, ended up working on Ruthless People (1986). This was a bit of a change of tack as this was a film where they didn’t produce the script. Their previous three films (The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)Airplane!and Top Secret! (1984)) were all written by the team whereas Paramount exec Michael Eisener came to them with a script they couldn’t turn down.

And a great story it is as well: the film opens with rich business man Danny DeVito talking about his wife, Bette Midler, inheriting a family fortune. Now he plans to murder her in order to get his hands on it. At the same time, Judge Reinhold is planning to kidnap and ransom Midler because DeVito stole fashion designs from Reinhold’s wife, Helen Slater, and made a fortune from them. Also, DeVito’s mistress and her secret boyfriend, played by Bill Pullman in his film debut, have their own plan to blackmail DeVito as she knows about the murder plan.

It’s a great farce of a plot with all these strands building on each other; once Midler is kidnapped DeVito couldn’t be happier and disobeys all their instructions so she’ll be killed whilst crying whenever a policeman is near. Reinhold and his wife are about as far from the hardened criminals as you could get and they soon bond with Midler’s character.

All of the cast are great, Pullman especially as an idiot stumbling through the plot of the film. His job is to film the murder but ends up filming a man seeing with a prostitute mistaken her kid screams for those of terror. He convinces he mistress of the terrible nature of the crime, with the tape of the murder/sex in a car causing mayhem as it gets passed around.

Whilst this is high farce, it just about stays outside of the parody genre that ZAZ were most famous for. Despite its silliness it is based somewhat in reality, with only a couple of jokes that would fit in their other work. There’s a great sense of confidence throughout the film, it feels like everyone knows they’re working with great material. DeVito especially revels in his role of the slimy philandering husband. Midler probably isn’t given that much to do with a fairly simplistic character arc which isn’t that far from a cameo.

Midler hadn’t been in a film for several years, not since Jinxed! (1982) had flopped at the box office. Her other film of this year would be Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) which would also be a big success. Her career was going through a resurgence at the time which may have helped with getting Ruthless People the attention it deserved.

It’s also interesting to look at the design of the film as it feels like one of those films where everything starts to really feel like an 80s films; DeVito and Midler’s house is full of big bright colours and abstract shapes that scream of the late 80s.

So it’s a great film, well written acted and directed. It’s strange then that this would be the last proper work of ZAZ all together. After this the team would split up and start working on their own films; David Zucker would direct two is the The Naked Gunseries of films by himself whilst the others produced. Jim Abrahams would direct Hot Shots! (1991) and its sequel and Jerry Zucker would direct Ghost (1990).

So why are they villains? Well, because you can draw a straight line from Airplane! through The Naked Gun and Hot Shots! and land squarely at the Scary Movie series of films. From there you’re got Epic Movie (2007) and Vampires Suck (2010) and all of that bilge. As legacies go, it’s horrific and it’s not like they can say it’s nothing to do with them; David Zucker directed Scary Movie 34 and 5. The parody movie, that once produced some of the greatest comedies ever made, has been reduced to a grotesque sideshow. You can’t lay all the blame at ZAZ, it’s like blaming Georges Méliès for bad modern special effect movies, but you can blame them for not making films that show everyone else how it’s done.

Ruthless People is a film that shows them in their pomp, near enough at the peak of their skills and is well worth revisiting. Just don’t think the same about their later work, when they became the villains.

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