"RUTHLESS PEOPLE" is a divine comedy, thanks in large part to bombastic Bette Midler, who's no longer down and out in Beverly Hills but chained to a bedstead in Santa Monica. She's an explosive bundle of kvetch and kitsch, the spark in this madcap kidnap caper.

Danny DeVito, the demonic bouillon cube, makes a contribution inversely proportionate to his size as Midler's heinous hubby, a clothing manufacturer who refuses to ransom his kidnapped wife. Instead he celebrates her disappearance at their mansion, an outpost of outre' Memphis in the smoggy L.A. hills, and ignores the kidnappers' demands -- even as the price gets marked down daily, like a dress at Syms.

Practiced parodists Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker of "Airplane" direct, but this is no parody. It's a comedy of errors that makes no mistakes. Sophisticated, silly, sexy, it has assorted storylines as solidly linked as cartoon sausages and a pace that's lickety-split. Dale Launer debuts with this terrific screenplay, which builds and builds a reckless, raunchy crescendo of laughs.

His complicated plot thickens when DeVito's mistress -- saucy Anita Morris of Broadway's "Nine" -- decides to blackmail her lover with the help of her other lover, a blonde bimbo named Earl, who is one of the few Americans to fully explore the erotic potentials of the Dust Buster. (As he puts it: "It just doesn't get any better than that.")

Earl's the dumbest man on earth, and Morris' daffy sexpot isn't much smarter. But the only real victims are the kidnappers -- Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater both completely charming as an avenging stereo salesman and his wife, a designer whose spandex mini-skirt was plagiarized by DeVito.

Midler takes over where Mae West left off here, a zaftig, seductive mama who packs a mighty wallop. She's carted off by her kidnappers in a burlap bag. Writhing and squalling like a banshee on battery acid, she tears the bag open with her long purple nails and claws at her would-be keepers. "Gandhi would strangle her," says the kindly Reinhold, whose schnook's slapstick is the perfect counterpoint to DeVito's nasty shenanigans.

The diminutive heavy is at his best ever, his compact comedy channeled into this relatively conservative bad guy's role, like a corporate troll in a three-piece suit. He's a satyr and a dog-hater who hires a guard dog named Adolf to eat his wife's pet pooch Muffy, who mines the carpet with "poodle bombs."

"Ruthless People," like "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," is one of the new Touchstone movies from Disney, a kind of sun-kissed California comedy of the bourgeoisie that may signal the resurgence of American farce. It's unmercifully funny.

RUTHLESS PEOPLE (R) -- At area theaters.