"Ruthless People" has an enchanting comic premise -- everyone in the film is either an S.O.B. or wants to become one. But ultimately, the black comedy is not pursued very far -- the movie's too good-natured for its own good. And the elaborately worked-out farce structure, involving a victim who may be either kidnaped or dead, is mostly wasted on a style of humor that, by comparison, makes Buddy Hackett seem the very soul of sophistication.
Ruthless Sam Stone (Danny DeVito), the miniskirt millionaire, has hatched a plot to murder his shrewish, overstuffed wife (Bette Midler), so when she's suddenly kidnaped, he refuses to pay the ransom. This perplexes the kidnapers (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), a couple who only want to get back what Sam owes them -- they're not ruthless at all.
Sam's ruthless mistress Carol (Anita Morris), meanwhile, is convinced that the kidnaping is a ruse and that Sam has gone ahead with the murder. Her boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman) has a videotape to prove it -- actually it shows the police commissioner in a front-seat assignation with a prostitute, but, as he watches all the screaming and thrashing, Earl's too stupid to tell the difference. When the cops come upon clues from Sam's murder plot, they accuse him; Sam suddenly has to pay the ransom, if only to prove to the cops that he's not as ruthless as they think he is.
The wife, in other words, is the center of a comedy of misapprehension -- when the characters talk about what's happened, they're never talking about the same thing. That sex videotape, for example, becomes the basis for a set piece in which Sam, who's seen it, discusses it with relish, while Carol, who hasn't, thinks he's talking with relish about his wife's murder and listens in horror.
But while it's nice to see a screen writer nowadays actually trying to build an architecture into his work, this is really pretty standard stuff; and while the architecture is fine, the bricks are not. In the hands of screen writer Dale Launer, the intricate plot of "Ruthless People" is little more than a matrix for crude double-entendres and a series of locker room jokes -- all that's missing is the odor of bay rum and jockstraps.
The movie has its moments. The credit sequence, a lurid cartoon by avant-garde animator Sally Cruikshank, unspools as a few minutes of pure hipness. There is a funny bit in which Slater and Reinhold hold the phone up to a frying hamburger, to simulate the sounds of torture. Reinhold whips through an amusing parody of a stereo salesman's patter in the creamy cadences of an FM radio disc jockey, and directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker (who brought you "Airplane!") have some fun sneaking nonsense into the background.
But the "Airplane!" boys aren't exactly bears for subtlety, either. The essence of their esthetic here is assault, whether in the acting, which is mostly overacting, or the cinematography (by Jan DeBont), which is garish and showoffy, or the dance music score (by Michel Colombier), which is relentless and very, very loud. Here is a movie that gives new meaning to the phrase "punch line."
Ruthless People, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains considerable profanity and sexual themes.