“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.

“Sideways” (2004) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

One of the best films of the past decade was Alexander Payne’s acidic and poignant comedy-drama “Sideways.” While much of it is funny (painfully and raunchily so), it’s also very sad. Having been lost in my own head and ill-conceived creative ambitions in my 20s, let’s just say this film is very much of a “There but for the grace of God go I …” kind of film.

Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job in the lead role of Miles, a failed author and wine snob who is spending his days teaching middle school English and going to too many wine “tastings.” Giamatti does a brilliant job making you like a character who is not particularly likable. I can’t describe how Giamatti is able to do it, but you do find yourself rooting for Miles, despite your better instincts. Why Giamatti’s performance was not even nominated for that year’s Oscars is one of many examples of why the Oscars have very little credibility for me.

However, the Oscars didn’t get it completely wrong that year. “Sideways” was nominated for Best PIcture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church) and Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen) and won its sole Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film’s best scene is the one where Maya, played by Virginia Madsen, explains to the lead character Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) what she finds meaningful about wine, though she’s really talking about herself. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about love between people who are, well, of a certain age. A truly amazing speech from a very special and wonderful film.

While “Sideways” doesn’t have a traditional happy ending per se, it does give the long-suffering lead character a push towards happiness, and sometimes, that’s all you need.