Comedy can intoxicate you, put you in a soft, rollicking mood. But it can also draw blood.

That’s what the people behind “Ruthless People” (citywide) are after. It’s pitched in the half-cynical vein of the comic muckraker. It tries to make sport of human vice, greed and corruption, some of the best comic subjects. The characters here aren’t just bad; most of them are truly vile--human slime. And the film makers chew them up (especially two nefarious bonbons played by Danny DeVito and Bette Midler) with the toothsome glee of jolly cannibals.

It’s about a kidnaping that goes awry. A hapless couple (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater)--angry because unscrupulous entrepreneur Sam Stone (DeVito) has swindled them out of her invention (spandex miniskirts)--heist Stone’s wife, Barbara (Midler), and demand a ransom for not killing her. Unfortunately, Stone wants nothing more than Barbara’s death. He has a mistress (who, in turn, has a moronic lover); he married Barbara for her father’s money, and the patriarch’s longevity has driven him crazy. On the verge of hiring hit men himself, the thought of a cut-rate demise fills him with slavering contentment.


The kidnapers’ incongruous kindness--pitched against their victim’s unbridled viciousness--is a Billy Wilder touch, sweetening the tone of hip malice. This pair, the Kesslers, are out of their depth as criminals. They’re an empathic, good-hearted couple with a daffy dragnet closing in on them. Almost everyone around them is brutal, half-insane or completely amoral. Barbara is a brassy harridan, a gauche grande dame, screeching for gourmet accommodations. Stone chuckles evilly to himself whenever he gets a new threat. And the police conduct a thoroughly corrupt investigation--with planted evidence and framed suspects--after the commissioner gets entangled in the inept blackmail schemes of Stone’s woman (Anita Morris).

There’s a shock in seeing this kind of material--with its heavy doses of sex, nudity, scatology, violence and calculated outrage--coming from the Disney Studio. It seems enough to send all seven dwarfs into cardiac arrest. But there’s a bigger shock: Much of it works. At its worst, “Ruthless People” is tasteless and over-broad. (Cracking jokes about a serial “bedroom killer” is a terrible idea; only a Lenny Bruce could bring it off.) But at its best, it’s hilarious.

Directors Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker (the three-headed team of “Airplane!”) fill the movie with comic vigor; they skewer their victims with panache. Dale Launer’s scenario doesn’t have the free-associating, madcap, near-surrealistic bursts of their other films, but it’s structurally tighter and has more tension. The relish that Abrahams and the Zuckers used to put into their verbal gags and conceits here goes into the visual-dramatic side: the cunningly choreographed frenzy and Tex Avery-style punch and pace, the swift, lopped-off tracking shots through interiors that are alternately tawdry or over-bright and gaudy. (Modeled on Italian “Memphis School” decor and wonderfully shot by Jan DeBont, the Stone mansion looks like punk gone nouveau riche). And the performances are all boisterously embroidered.

Midler and DeVito are the kind of actors who can exhaust you, but here their energy level--which sometimes shrivels the actors around them--gets at the Stones’ semi-demonic core. She’s a great, yowling grotesque; he bristles with sleazeball malevolence. Along with Morris’ well-upholstered doxy, they’re creatures of sheer, ruthless appetite, living in a world beyond laws or pity. (He’s damned because his appetites are unchecked; perhaps she’s redeemed by her dieting.) And against the soft eyes and homey looks of Slater and Reinhold (his best work since “Beverly Hills Cop”), the Stones are a pair of barracudas with angelfish nibbling at their flanks.

So many comedy scriptwriters either do sub-”Saturday Night Live” satire or say they want to do a Capra-esque movie--then turn out the kind of blandly affirmative goo the young Capra would have snickered at--that it’s refreshing when someone tries to tap the trenchant, salty, no-bull vein of Hecht and MacArthur in “The Front Page” or “Nothing Sacred,” or of the best Billy Wilder.

But “Ruthless People” has a flaw: It isn’t ruthless enough. For a current movie, Launer’s plot-juggling is both unusual and deft, but in parts he eases up and slides into formula. The ending, especially, is a cheat: It may be the climax everyone expects, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s too automatic, and it seems madly illogical, depending on unlikely bursts of brilliance and prowess from people who have previously shown themselves to be absolute dunderheads.


Yet so much of “Ruthless People” goes so far that maybe it was inevitable that the film makers would pull up short and make this half-sappy compromise--cynicism with a smile--as compensation for their previous audacity. A pity. A lot of the rest gives you something better: full-bore, shameless, gut-clutching laughter.

‘RUTHLESS PEOPLE’ A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Films presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners II. Producer Michael Peyser. Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Script Dale Launer. Camera Jan DeBont. Editor Arthur Schmidt. Executive producers Richard Wagner, Joanna Lancaster, Walter Yetnikoff. Music Michel Colombier. Art director Donald Woodruff. Visual consultant Lilly Kilvert. With Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater, Anita Morris, Bill Pullman, William G. Schilling, Art Evans, Clarence Felder.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).