“Citizen Ruth” (1996) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have emerged as America’s leading satirists of middle-class delusion. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways” were all critical (and sometimes) box-office hits roundly deserving of their universal acclaim. However, rarely mentioned is Payne and Taylor’s first film, the wonderfully acidic “Citizen Ruth.”

Ruth Stoops, the titular hero played by Laura Dern, is a drug-addict and petty criminal who finds out she is pregnant during one of her many stints in jail. Given the fact that she’s had four other children (all under foster care or under the care of ex-boyfriends/husbands), a judge offers leniency if she will abort her unborn child. This raises the attention of a local pro-life group called the Baby Savers who bail her out and try to use the judge’s offer as a call to arms for their cause. Through a series of circumstances, she then winds up under the care of a pro-choice group who want her to promote their cause.

Believe it or not, the degenerate Ruth winds up being the character you root for the most in the film. Dern pulls off the impossible in her characterization of Ruth. She manages to be sympathetic while still acting like someone you’d never even remotely think of inviting into your home.

No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, “Citizen Ruth” mercilessly attacks both sides. While I don’t think Payne and Taylor are saying that all pro-life or pro-choice people are like the characters in this film, they illustrate what happens when activists use people as symbols to “send messages” instead of actually doing something to help the people they’re exploiting.

In addition to Dern, the rest of the cast, which includes Kurtwood Smith, Burt Reynolds, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Mary Kay Place, M.C. Gainey, Tippi Hedren, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mom), all deliver terrific career-best performances.

A wonderfully brittle and nasty skewering of an extremely sensitive topic. If you have a brain, a heart, and a very dark sense of humor, you’ll hopefully find this film as hilarious as I did.

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