Picks and Pans Review: Ruthless People

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As soon as you see Bette Midler in this rowdy and raunchy comedy, you know the title is a misnomer. Tacky People would be more accurate. As a kidnapping victim who has just been dumped in a basement, Midler makes an entrance that elicits gasps from the audience. She pokes out of a sack with her red hair flying, eyes popping and venom spewing. Midler looks like a she-devil from outer space, and she's dressed like the most nouveau gauche belle of Bel Air, which she is. In this cunning '80s update on O. Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief, two kidnappers, Judge (Beverly Hills Cop) Reinhold and Helen (Supergirl) Slater, are saddled with a witch nobody wants. Midler's sleazo husband, Danny DeVito, would rather cavort with his mistress, Anita (Blue City) Morris, than put up the money to get his wife back. But these desperate characters suffer more from an excess of tastelessness than ruthlessness. Besides being the funniest movie so far this year, Ruthless People is entertainment with an edge. Dale Launer's script (his first produced screenplay) is spiked with clever commentary on the poodle culture. In fact, not since Handle With Care has such a low-down comedy accommodated such high-minded insights. And Launer's well-structured script apparently has inspired the filmmakers to keep their minds on the material for a change. Directed by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, the trio responsible for Top Secret! and Airplane!, this comedy marks a satisfying advance over their previous work. This time they don't keep interrupting themselves with gratuitous asides or movie allusions. While the cast performs uniformly well, it's Midler who surprises most pleasantly. In Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Midler looked reined in and uncomfortable. Finally, onscreen she gives a bawdy, clownish performance that captures some of the energy of her stage persona. At its considerable best, Ruthless People is a riotous anomaly: a very good farce about very bad taste. (R)

"ABOUTLAST NIGHT..." It's not a good idea to make a love story about two people who are so self-absorbed, sniveling and bad-tempered that the audience wants them to end up in a dumpster, not living happily ever after. It's not a good idea to make a social satire about single people when they are already so inconsequential and empty that the effect resembles trying to puncture a deflated balloon. That doesn't leave much for this movie to do other than show off how handsome Rob (Youngblood) Lowe is and how charming Demi (St. Elmo's Fire) Moore can be. They play the couple in question, a restaurant supply salesman and an advertising agency artist, but they're not really to blame for the ill will their characters generate. Nor are Jim (The Man With One Red Shoe) Belushi and newcomer Elizabeth Perkins. Belushi plays Lowe's best friend, a relentless male chauvinist boor who keeps saying things like "You never call a broad more than once a week"; his lines are never any funnier than that but they're usually a lot more obscene. Perkins is Moore's best friend, an all-time sourpuss who won't stop trying to sabotage the Lowe-Moore relationship. All four of these tiresome malcontents spend most of the movie griping about each other. They're also so shallow that Lowe's and Moore's idea of a tragic problem is whether to have ham or turkey for Thanksgiving. The film is the first feature by Emmy-winning director Edward Zwick. It was adapted from David Mamet's play Sexual Perversity in Chicago by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, who have never had a screenplay produced before and whose talents would seem more appropriate for writing tomato paste can labels. When Belushi tells Lowe he's so good-looking that "the best thing that could happen to you would be an industrial accident," the film's high point in humor has been reached. The film was shot mostly in Chicago, which is portrayed as a beautiful city inhabited only by small-minded people who are always in a bad mood; its citizens should sue for defamation of character. (R)

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