Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) doesn't simply dislike his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), he actively loathes her, so has dreamed up a plan to get her out of his life forever: murder. He tells his mistress Carol (Anita Morris) about this over a restaurant table, his sob story about how he married her for her father's wealth, knowing the father would soon be dead, but he didn't die, he lived on and now Sam is stuck with his woman he hates. It seems to him killing her is the best way out, so means to do the deed today, bidding goodbye to Carol and heading back home with his chloroform, all the better to take her unconscious body and dump it over a cliff, but when he arrives she isn't there. Then he gets the phone call: Barbara has been kidnapped.
Ruthless People was the final film directed by the team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker who would go their separate ways creatively thereafter, in spite of this being one of the biggest comedies of its year (and a welcome hit after the disappointing reception Top Secret! received). It took on the old story about the kidnapping where the person supposed to be playing the ransom is more than delighted to see the back of the kidnap victim and refuses to pay, often attributed to writer O. Henry but here bearing more resemblance to the Terry-Thomas comedy Too Many Crooks. There was an eighties twist in that besides the obvious soundtrack elements, the trappings of the decade were there for all to see, though the most blatant was to create a comedy for adults.
Although these had been established in the nineteen-seventies, if not further back if you wanted to trace the form back to the likes of Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid, the eighties truly embraced the form, leading up to the so-called gross out comedies of the nineties and beyond as the Farrelly Brothers carried the standard to make these into blockbusters. That said, in Dale Launer's script it was really the salty dialogue that marked it out as for the grown-ups, with strong language abounding, and though not as blue as some comedies would become it was part of the movement that said it loud and clear that it was clever to swear. Given Bette Midler was someone audiences could expect to curse her head off in real life, she was ideal casting.
Especially when Madonna was initially cast as the obnoxious wife, but refused to wear the fat suit padding essential to Barbara's transformation, for as she is stuck in the cellar with Sam refusing to pay she does that very eighties activity, turns to aerobics to pass the time and ends up looking rather trim. Her captors are very far from ruthless, the meek Kessler couple, Ken (Judge Reinhold) who sells electrical equipment, and Sandy (Helen Slater) who wanted to become a fashion designer. The tension between the classes, that was those who had money and those who did not, was overt here, as Sam is nouveau riche and therefore crass, Barbara is from old money so crass but eventually redeemable, and the kidnappers are poor therefore deserve to be rich.
Though wouldn't that make them nouveau riche, thus going against the message of the piece? Maybe, but what was more important is that Sam had gathered his wealth from money that isn't rightfully his for he stole Sandy's idea for spandex fashion (which decade was this made in? Oh yeah), so per the American Dream it was really the Kesslers who should be enjoying the fruits of Sandy's labours and not Sam. Launer's screenplay was very neatly worked out, though the inclusion of a crazed murderer brought about some plot convenience that was hard to believe even for something as broad as this; nevertheless, it all fit together with a satisfying pop and was carried by some very enthusiastic performances, particularly in the roles of the Stones. Complications arising from Carol scheming with dim boyfriend Bill Pullman led to some of the biggest laughs if you were not totally amused by characters being obnoxious (though Reinhold whacked in the face by a well-aimed mug remained a sure laugh getter), and if it wasn't the funniest film the ZAZ team ever crafted, it was pretty good. Music by Michel Colombier.