Ruthless People (1986)
Ruthless People is maybe the best "idiot plot" in history. For those unfamiliar, here's the man who coined the term, Roger Ebert, explaining it in his 1968 review of the movie Wait Until Dark:
Briefly, an idiot plot depends upon one or more characters being idiots. They get trapped in a situation that they could easily get out of with common sense. But they don't, being idiots. If they did, they'd solve the problem and the movie would be over."
Over time, he's refined the definition — to more specifically refer to movies where characters have idiotic and obnoxiously convenient misunderstandings which lead to wild swings of plot that could realistically be solved easily with limited dialogue or difficulty — but I don't know if he's ever put it better. And watching Ruthless People for the first time I kept thinking to myself, "Man, what an idiot plot" while simultaneously marveling that every so often, an idiot plot can work.
Typically, the problem with idiot plots is they require seemingly intelligent, rational people to act like imbeciles. But Ruthless People is centered around the very idea that society is populated solely by thugs and halfwits. Thus all of the elaborate wrangling needed to make each character act exactly as they must to advance the narrative is not only acceptable, it is utterly plausible. Of course they would. These people are morons.
Let's take a moment now to discuss the story, idiotic as it is. Danny DeVito plays Sam Stone a textile magnate who's waited for years to inherit his rich wife's family's money. Fed up, he decides to off the wife and collect what's coming to him, but the very day he walks in to his tastelessly designed home with a bottle of cyanide is the same one she's been kidnapped and held for ransom. That gives us the first of several hysterical scenes, where DeVito slowly realizes that that all he needs to do for his wife to end up dead is to not pay someone half a million dollars. Greedy as Sam is, not giving someone money is a very easy task indeed.
The idiot plot comes in later. Sam's got a mistress and confidant named Carol (Anita Morris), who learns of Sam's intent to kill his wife and hatches a blackmail scheme with her dimwitted boytoy Earl (Bill Pullman, in an inspired performance of Lone Starian proportions). Earl is dispatched to videotape the murder and instead winds up filming a random couple in the midst of bout of rough, loud sex and (because he's an idiot) mistakes it for murder. For things to work out as they must, Earl must convince Carol that he not only taped the killing, but that the footage is so grisly she must not watch it (because if she did she'd realize the footage is not of Sam and his wife). The remaining nincompoops include the actual kidnappers (Judge Reinhold and Supergirl herself, Helen Slater), and Sam's wife Barbara (Bette Midler), who is such a shrill harpy that for a moment we contemplate whether Sam's desire to see her dead is such an outlandish request. Further idiot plot twists come along, mostly involving the chief of police (who, it turns out, is one half of the random couple) but saying more would spoil the fun for those who still need to see the movie.
It's all pulled off beautifully by the ZAZ team, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, whose more famous movies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun thrive on the humor of stupidity. Here their more outlandish instincts are tamped down, and there's really only moment truly ZAZian sight gag in the whole film (Sam goes to identify his wife's body in the morgue, the coroner pulls back the sheet and reveals...a middle-aged black man). Truth be told, I wasn't even aware they directed this movie until I casually examined its "INFO" on my DVR and it is the only movie the trio directed but did not write (the high level of comedy throughout, as well as a few choice moments, suggest to me they at least contributed an uncredited polish). The ending is probably a bit too happy, given how despicable most of the characters are and I would have recast a few of the parts with better actors instead of all the people were really "hot" back in 1986. Regardless, these guys know how to do idiots. And if you can do idiots, you can do idiot plots.
Labels: Zucker Brothers