Zucker, Zucker & Abrahams: Ruthless People (1986)

By the mid-80s, directors were starting to yearn for ever more extravavant modes of cinematic excess. In the realm of comedy, even the most extreme farce wasn’t enough, propelling a new wave of violent romantic antagonism comedies that fused sensation and laughter as viscerally as possible. Ruthless People was one of these exercises – in its darkly comic inversion of the Getty and Hearst abduction narratives; in the cartoony violence that percolates through every scene, and that sees one of the main characters wear a Donald Duck mask in the midst of this abduction; in the constant cacophonous yelling and talking at cross-purposes; and in the running monologue from Danny DeVito, which is only occasionally interrupted for plot points, and which forms one of the main ingredients for his character of Frank Reynolds in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia two decades later. As those descriptions might suggest, Ruthless People is driven by energy more than story, which it gets out of the way pretty quickly. Sam Stone, a Los Angeles millionaire, played by DeVito, arranges to have his wife Barbara (Bette Midler) killed so he can start a new life with his mistress Carol Dodsworth (Anita Miller). Just when Sam and Carol are about to set their plan in motion, however, Barbara is kidnapped by social climbers Ken and Sandy Kessler, played by Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater, who demand a ransom that Sam is more than happy not to pay.

These plot points come together around a serial killer and a videotape, two media hubs of the 80s that together turn into epicentres of misunderstanding, sites where the anarchic energy of the film proliferates into endless and escalating cross-purposes. All of that volatility serves to announce the mid-80s as the moment when upward mobility, and access to social class, has been transmuted directly into consumer style. For the satirical premise of Ruthless People is that you can and should discern a person’s class by examining their home décor. Class here is a function of mise-en-scene, much as the film’s hyperbolised interiors are a comic jab at the audience’s own class aspirations. To watch the film in the first place, the film itself seems to insist, is a kind of conspicuous consumption, a relishing of redundant stylistic flourish that might not be available for everyone in real life, but can still be enjoyed as a fantasy on the big screen. With double, triple and quadruple crosses (and beyond), the narrative architecture of the film becomes plastic, palpable and visible, as the Zucker-Abrahams team reify every plot point into a physical structure that they can deck out in their directorial décor, much as their more well-known comedies, like Airplane! turn words into physical objects that can be exchanged, fungibly, at will. Add Jan DeBont’s stylish cinematography, and we have one of the defining artefacts of mid-80s cinematic affect, a film that dares you to say it has dated.

No surprise, then, that every character in the film is clamouring for this style. Sam, DeVito’s character, lives in what must be the purest expression of Memphis Style ever committed to film – a palatial mansion in Bel Air that he funded by stealing an idea for a Spandex miniskirt. When the kidnappers take his wife, they ensconce him even further in this dayglo playground, since he doesn’t even have to share it anymore. When police arrive at his window it looks like he’s suddering with grief, but in reality he’s quivering with joy, contorting his body to the demands of a synthpop refrain that he can only identify with in its entirety now that the house belongs to him alone. By contrast, DeVito is surrounded by characters defined more by the residues of a 70s style that hasn’t fully migrated into the 80s. His lover, Carol, plans to double-cross him, and take her own lover Earl (Bill Pullman) to Tahiti, but doesn’t get any further than the vague 70s tropicalia of Earl’s caravan – aquarium, lava lamp, Aloha Hawaii sign. Carol might be aiming for offshore hyperreality, but she ends up stuck in surfer-slacker California.

However, the starkest contrast to Sam comes in the form of Ken and Sandy, the kidnappers, who inhabit the most modest version of the 80s. They live in a drab house, largely devoid of 80s style except for a few pink fixtures, and a muted pink light in the basement where they keep Barbara prisoner. They’re yearning for décor, and see the abduction as the best way to attain it, especially since they’ve been unable to access 80s style through their professional lives. Sandy is an aspiring designer, and genuinely talented, full of cutting-edge visions but with no industry connections to bring them to fruition. Similarly, Ken works in a hi-fi store, where he spends his days helping clients to furnish their futuristic pads. He has the taste, nuance and discernment to equip other people’s houses, but no free capital to fix up his own.

Ken’s subplot expands the ambit of the film considerably, by making it clear that we are not simply in the realm of aesthetic décor but technological décor – or a new nexus between the two. Style here is a conduit for technology, and technology a conduit for style, which is perhaps why it feels we are never too far away from the aesthetic universe of Apple, which lies just over the horizon of the film. As someone who grew up at the tail end of this kind of hardware, Ruthless People instantly took me back to a time when music and AV equipment were as much a symbol of phallic prowess as automobiles – the age of stereo system status anxiety, which can feel quite strange from a contemporary vantage point where smaller and less visible is often a better sign of taste when it comes to technology consumerism. In one scene, for example, Ken emasculates a customer in front of his girlfriend by explaining that his stereo choice – the “Dominator-X” – is simply an overrated sound system for beta males who need “bigger equipment.” Yet the Dominator-X quickly becomes a focal point of Ruthless People, the place where its aesthetic and technological décor converge into peak cacophony.

If DeVito is the most successful character at attaining 80s style, and the kidnappers are the least successful, then Barbara is the figure who embodies the process of mobility itself. For Barbara is less a character than a mannequin, only moving in a very limited way, and in contorted inhuman poses. It makes more this incentivises Barbara to become even more mannequin-like. She starts watching aerobics obsessively, becomes addicted to fashion magazines, and crafts her own 80s-styled fantasia in the basement where she is kept prisoner. Being kidnapped propels her further into the futuristic 80s than any other character, turning her into a force field of pure style, a machine that transmutes capital into decor: “My body’s become a more efficient machine – I go farther with less food.” This is the ransom the kidnappers really want, so by the time she’s remade their house, they no longer need her as a captive, and instead embrace her as a friend. Concomitantly, Barbara comes to love the kidnappers for pushing her into this new futuristic field, and allows Sandy to use her as a model for her dress designs, which become the last layer of style cloaking the 80s basement. 

It’s only at the very apex of this 80s fantasia that Sandy realises Sam hasn’t paid the ransom, and never intended to pay. Rather than seeing this as an emotional betrayal, however, she sees it as an insult and a downgrade, as somehow neutering her stylistic capital. As she explains to Ken and Sandy, it’s as if she’s been “kidnapped by K-Mart,” prompting her to enlist the kidnappers against Sam, but also steal Sandy’s design, in an effort to cement her claim to the future once and for all. It’s at this point, as the kidnappers’ house is finally flooded with pinks and pastels, that the videotape and serial killer subplots come together as well, resulting in a climactic phone conversation at Crocker Court in Bunker Hill – the ground zero of postmodern Los Angeles, the point where an older kind of cityscape is alchemically transmuted into free-floating architectural style. This final conversation is preceded by a 360-degree pan around the most iconic postmodern buildings in the precinct, from the Wells Fargo building to the Westin Bonaventure, which is then mirrored in the circular structure of the public phone hub, and distantly echoed by the Alexander Calder sculpture in the background. For a brief moment, the film seems to have found the magical curve between capital and style, in the heart of postmodern Los Angeles, before the two dissociate again, like the eclipse in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and expel their energy in a chase that traverses the city from downtown to Santa Monica Pier, and then down and over the very end of the pier.

Between these two stunning set pieces, Ruthless People evinces a yearning to map the heart of the 80s image economy, the point where financial and décor capital meet up, the eclipse between the phone booth and the Bunker Hill cityscape curving behind it, mirrored in the Four Curves that give Calder’s free-standing sculpture its name. But the chase also captures the impossibility of inhabiting that fantasmatic space, which dissolves at precisely the moment that the characters try to accelerate towards it – indeed, expels them into precisely this illusion that it is something they can move towards in a conventional sense. In the process, downtown Los Angeles, and the postmodern core of the city, becomes displaced from itself, until the film ends in a sprawl, a drift, a dissolution, encapsulated in the briefcase of cash that blows across the Santa Monica beach at the end – capital that is no longer quite in regular circulation, but that hasn’t quite settled into a function of mise-en-scene yet either.

About Billy Stevenson (929 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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