Film and TV

Choosing Sides

Nobody is going to seriously accuse writer-director Alexander Payne of being chicken. For his first feature, the hilarious Citizen Ruth, not only has he chosen the number-one issue a filmmaker is likely to get killed over--abortion and a woman's right to make a personal decision on the subject--but he's made a comedy about it.

Certainly, there is no subject that should be off-limits to humor--including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, slavery, the Holocaust, child molestation, cannibalism and...well, gosh, you just finish the list yourself. This is not to say that any of these or a thousand other horrors are themselves funny, but a humorous approach does not mean you are trivializing or marginalizing a subject. The comic realm is such an integral and necessary part of human nature--of the world itself--that nothing in creation can be excluded from its view.

Unfortunately, that's not a universally held opinion. The world is also full of people to whom comedy is an insult--and some of those people are just wacky enough to kill over a such an affront. There is perhaps no point in hurling brickbats at the corpse of the deranged John Salvi, who murdered two abortion-clinic workers, but I'm willing to bet that the guy was--well, let's just say humor-challenged.

In Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern stars as Ruth Stoops, a glue-sniffing, unemployed drifter. When Ruth gets popped for the umpteenth time, she finds out she's pregnant (for the fifth time). The impatient judge, tired of seeing Ruth and her ilk in court, decides to define her solvent inhalation as felony child endangerment. Privately, he suggests to Ruth that he might be willing to drop the charges if she agrees to an abortion. Ruth is conflicted but willing.

Before she can act, however, her situation comes to the attention of the local pro-life organization, headed by Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith). The Stoneys, who live by religious platitudes, take Ruth into their home with promises of unconditional love. Of course, even unconditional love comes with conditions. When Ruth smacks the Stoneys' young son for trying to interrupt her glue-sniffing, the two freak out and send her off with another of their group.

The first third or so of the film makes such buffoons of the pro-life advocates that it's in danger of getting really snotty: No matter how much you may disagree with them, no matter how much Payne's satirical barbs at their tackiness and self-deception may seem almost documentary in their accuracy, the sense of a hipper-than-thou manipulator condescendingly chuckling at a bunch of dim yokels almost chokes the humor.

Just when things appear to be turning really sour, Payne saves himself by spreading the nastiness around a bit. By a plot contrivance, Ruth is "rescued" from her Christian saviors by a group of pro-choice activists headed by two lesbians (Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston) and a Vietnam-vet biker (a terrific M.C. Gainey). The film pokes precisely the equivalent sort of fun at feminist cliches here.

There can be little doubt that, all things being equal, Payne is rather more on the side of the pro-choice people. As the film progresses, the focus becomes less and less about abortion and more and more about personal freedom. The activists on both sides are painted as opportunists: Nobody really wants Ruth to make her own decision, and everyone wants to use her to "send a message"--a phrase that itself becomes a running gag. One could argue, in fact, that the cartoon feminists are painted more negatively than the Christians because their desire to manipulate Ruth is more hypocritical; the pro-life types don't even pretend to be interested in empowering Ruth.

Payne was doubtless inspired by the twists and turns in the life of Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade infamy--a woman frequently described as "simple" who has been bickered over like a prize heifer by the spin artists on both sides of the conflict. (Appropriately enough, McCorvey became a born-again Christian last year and joined up with the rabid Operation Rescue anti-choice faction.) Ruth Stoops is certainly one step beyond simple; we never know whether she started out on the dumb end of the intelligence spectrum, but by the time we meet her, her habit of inhaling every available organic solvent has definitely gotten her there.

Dern does a terrific job of giving Ruth recognizable human feelings without ever apologizing for her or ennobling her on any other grounds. We cheer at any intimation of Ruth regaining control of her life from the factions that pretend to be looking out for her; at the same time, we know that once she regains control, she'll go straight back to sniffing glue, getting drunk and sleeping with anyone who will put her up for the night.

Both Fellini and Woody Allen have remarked that casting is something like 90 percent of directing--and Citizen Ruth bears witness to that notion. While this is primarily Dern's show, the casting is perfect all around. Smith, primarily known for playing villains, reveals himself to be an adept comedian; Place, Gainey, Kurtz, Preston and the always-wonderful Kenneth Mars (the Nazi from The Producers) are right on the money. The sheer appearance of Burt Reynolds as a smarmy pro-life leader gets a laugh, and Reynolds has been a good enough sport to deliberately don one of the world's worst rugs for the part.

Payne seems to have been going for the effect of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) but with a much cheerier overall tone or, perhaps more directly, Preston Sturges's similar tale of small-town folly, Hail the Conquering Hero. His collection of mid-American eccentrics and fools suggests much of Sturges's work. What Sturges managed that Payne as yet lacks is a sense of everyone's human dignity--a sense without which satire can descend to viciousness. There were rarely, if ever, any real "bad guys" in Sturges's universe; Payne has no "bad guys," either, but he never quite gives the Stoneys their due. Their real-world counterparts may be deluded, they may be wrong--but they're a tad more human than Citizen Ruth ever quite conveys.

Citizen Ruth.
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne. With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston and Burt Reynolds.