Saturday, January 14, 2012

Overlooked Gems #18: Citizen Ruth

Grade: 93 (A)
Writer-director Alexander Payne will likely be nominated for several Oscars in a few weeks for his most recent film, The Descendants. There’s a chance he may even win Best Director (he previously won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2004’s Sideways). But there’s a vocal minority of Payne fans who were clearly disappointed with his latest outing, which saw him leaning a bit too in favor of his more sentimental side that he brought out very, very sparingly in About Schmidt and Sideways. I gave the film a “B”, myself, but that’s still a letdown from a filmmaker whose other four features were complete knockouts. One thing’s for sure: whatever the film’s virtues, it’s a far cry from Payne’s decidedly nasty debut, Citizen Ruth. It made about $300,000 in its theatrical run (about a tenth of its budget), and it’s certainly not as accessible as The Descendants, but it remains one of the wickedest satires of the 90s.
Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is a fuck-up, there’s no getting around it. She’s unintelligent, addicted to inhalants, she doesn’t live anywhere, her four kids have all been taken away from her. She is, in short, not a picture of stability. When she’s arrested for the sixteenth time in one year, she finds out that she’s pregnant again, and the sympathetic judge (who’s all too familiar with Ruth by now) suggests that she get an abortion rather than get charged with child-endangerment. But Ruth shares a cell with a group of jailed pro-life protesters (or “Babysavers”), and they decide to make Ruth their latest project. They pay Ruth’s bail and take her in, but before long Ruth falls in with a group of pro-choice men and women, and soon this foul-mouthed, irresponsible, unintelligent woman and her unborn child (referred to as “Baby Tanya” by the pro-lifers) are at the center of an ugly national debate.
Payne’s first film uses its Nebraskan setting perfectly, showing a downtrodden town in Midwest America, the perfect setting for a national debate. Every house is suited to its owner, from the super-duper Christian home of pro-life activists Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place to the earth-mother home of pro-choice activists/lovers Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston. Perhaps the best setting is pro-life side’s fake abortion critic, which is all-white, antiseptic, and cold, a clear way to provoke unease.
The settings are populated by Fellini-esque grotesques, wild and wooly versions of their real life counterparts. Smith and Place’s religious leanings clash with the amoral Ruth; earth-mothers Kurtz and Preston are pretty loopy for Ruth themselves. Even the fake clinic is run by a “kindly” doctor played (in his final film role) by Mel Brooks-regular Kenneth Mars and an unnervingly nice nurse (Kathleen Noone, who’s hilariously described by critic Mike D’Angelo as looking like “she’s auditioning to replace Heath Ledger as the Joker).
These characters are all a bunch of lunatics, and while all of them believe they’re doing the right thing, they’re all doing it to push their agenda. When Ruth tries to get an abortion at the fake clinic, she’s shown a tape equating abortion to the Holocaust (common argument among the most gung-ho pro-lifers). When the pro-choice women see that Ruth might keep the baby, they remind her to only do so if “she’s doing it for the right reasons”. Who you find more ridiculous and horrifying likely depends on which side of the debate you’re on (I’m firmly in the pro-choice camp and find the Babysavers ultra-creepy), but there’s not a decent person among them.
That charge includes Ruth herself, played by Dern without any sense of vanity. Dern’s past roles included a good girl in a bad world (Blue Velvet), a tough and intelligent paleo-botanist (Jurassic Park), and a sexy but good-hearted runaway (Wild at Heart). Ruth isn’t any of those things: she’s rude, irresponsible, easily swayed, foul-mouthed (“suck the shit outta my ass, you fucker!”), money-hungry, and frequently outright filthy (her stringy hair is particular memorable). She drinks and huffs paint or glue while she’s still deciding whether or not to keep the baby. It’s the first major star Payne deglamorized to portray a misanthrope whose motivations are just as repulsive as everyone else’s (see also: Matthew Broderick in Election, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). It’s mean, it’s ugly, and it’s damned hilarious.

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