Citizen Ruth (1996)

Dern v. Payne

“Abortion satire” is pretty much the opposite of my ideal pitch for a film. I simply do not enjoy most attempts to narrativize the incendiary issue; too often it boils down to ideological point-scoring or righteous anger. Yet Alexander Payne’s 1996 feature-length debut Citizen Ruth pulls it off with a comic touch and cynicism generously aimed all parties. Ruth herself is even the object of much eye-rolling derision. The result is a hysterical satire, a blistering takedown of the entire money-driven system.

At the story’s center lies Laura Dern’s sensational performance as Ruth Stoops, a homeless paint-huffing addict sentenced to jail until agreeing to abort her latest unexpected pregnancy. Both pro-life and pro-choice groups soon descend like vultures, alternately threatening and bribing Ruth to serve as a public icon in favor of their cause. Ruth hilariously succumbs to basically every one of their attempts at persuasion, only to forget it all and try to find some more chemicals to inhale a scene later. The film’s most potent comic weapon is Laura Dern’s phenomenal, abrupt delivery of colorful strings of profanity whenever anyone gets in her way.

In less capable hands, either Ruth or the activists circling her could easily become one-note caricatures. Yet Dern infuses Ruth with such baffled humanity that her continual self-sabotage has both a comic and dramatic resonance to it. Payne writes all of the film’s characters with such insight into their contradictions (rather than inherent disdain for them as political cartoons) that it becomes difficult to either resent or root for anyone. As stakes escalate, Payne targets the corrupting influence of money on political discourse more than any one side’s beliefs. And a climax centered more on Ruth’s dignity as a person than debates around fetal personhood offers a graceful refusal to oversimplify.

Payne really impresses in his feature debut, both as a writer and director. Curiously, his command is sharper here (and only improved in his next film, Election) than it would become in his later outings, which are filled with ambivalence that Payne can’t quite pierce through. His ability to align the humor, empathy, and nastiness into a steady, hilarious flow places him as a great satirist and dramedy storyteller right out of the gate.

The film is, if anything, a bit too silly and freewheeling: When its final ten minutes take a more serious and sad tack on Ruth’s character development, it doesn’t fully gel. At least the final image is perfectly bittersweet and non-committal.

So Citizen Ruth is still a tough logline to chew through, especially for an incisive comedy: you don’t need me to tell you that abortion isn’t a barrel of yuks. And yet this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in months. Citizen Ruth is such an adventurous and remarkable debut for Payne.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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