Devotees of Miss M have plenty of reasons to think her Divine, but to my mind it’s the fact that she so humbly threw herself into a gaggle of comedies with ludicrous concepts throughout the 1980s following a breakout Academy-Award nominated role in 1979’s The Rose. Ruthless People is one of those very films, but what sets it apart from Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Outrageous Fortune is Midler’s gleeful willingness to exaggerate and mock her own physical imperfections, to contort her face in strange ways and emit hideous noises throughout the film.
The plot borders on convoluted, but the gist of Midler’s contribution is that she plays Danny DeVito’s cantankerous wife who is kidnapped and held for ransom by a bumbling husband and wife (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) with a score to settle. Plans go awry when DeVito, who loathes his wife and is ecstatic at her absence, refuses to pay the ever-decreasing ransom sum, leaving the kidnappers stuck with Midler, whose fury rises to a fever pitch when she realizes her husband won’t cough up the bucks. The cheap joke here is that Midler’s character is overweight and a huge headache-making loudmouth, but the fresh twist is that she develops a sort of Stockholm Syndrome over the course of the film, thankful to her captors because while chained in the basement she has nothing to occupy herself with except for aerobics tapes. By the time her weeklong stint as hostage is up, she’s shed 20 pounds, has a girl-like glow, and is ready to help her naïve kidnappers milk DeVito out of his fortune—and she does so in a gloriously shoulder-padded oversized sweater and pumps ensemble that offsets her gigantic mane of frizzy orange hair just right.
Look, Ruthless People isn’t a great film, but it’s a tremendously fun one and, for lovers of dated comedies with sensible budgets, very much of its era. Midler’s comedic work here is consistent with her other roles in the genre, but she scores extra points because in just about every scene she’s in, she’s either raising her eyebrows in some hilariously subtle (or extreme, depending on the scene) way, or wheezing some weird sound to freak out her timid assailants, or in the background behind a conversation serving as a one woman sight gag (for example, testing out the body chops she plans to deliver DeVito while Slater and Reinhold are trying to logically figure out their next move). Above all else, it’s a brilliant artifact of an accomplished and diverse performer taking her craft seriously enough to understand that one shouldn’t take herself very seriously at all. ~ Joe Vallese