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If you are like me, even though you love black humor, it is still hard to imagine that sentence to be true. But, gladly that is the case with Alexander Payne's (Election, About Schmidt) 1996 debut film, which still amazes me with how much it makes me laugh at such a touchy subject.
Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) finds herself out on the street without squat. You get the sense right away that it is familiar territory, and Ruth turns to her only goal in life, huffing whatever she can (in this case patio sealant). After she passes out curbside behind the hardware store, she is put into jail, once again familiar territory. In court she is told that she is pregnant- her third it turns out, having raised none of her kids- and the judge decides to make an example out of her and charges her with Felony Criminal Endangerment of a Fetus and urges her to have an abortion. While in jail, she meets "The Baby Savers", a group of Christian pro-lifers who have been locked up after blocking an abortion clinic. Hearing Ruths case, she is taken under their wing, mainly the Stoney family (Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place), so they can use her as a poster child for their cause. But, Ruth is just happy for the attention, a warm place to sleep, partying with their rebellious teenage daughter, and eventually huffing their sons airplane glue. Just as the Stoneys are souring on their uncouth houseguest, Ruth is liberated by a pro-choice spy within the Baby Savers ranks (Swoozie Kurtz) and her pagan lesbian lover (Kelly Preston). As her story gains national media attention, Ruth finds herself in-between the two radical camps, each wanting her for their cause. But the only factor in Ruth's decision making process is which side is offering her more money.
The easy answer as to why this film succeeds (aside from the great cast and sly direction), is that it doesn't take sides. Both of the camps are portrayed in a cartoonish, silly manner, so really the film could be about any topic or sacred cause that people become so blinded by they begin lose their judgment and foam at the mouth in their rallies for or against it. This is not a film about choosing sides on the issue, it is about reactionary zealots. (I'm reminded of a segment on Penn and Tellers new Showtime series Bullshit where they went to a ecological rally and had people signing a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide- otherwise known as H2O, water.) Since there is no side you warm up to in Citizen Ruth and each is equal in its stained sense of righteousness, it was a brave stance to take in plotting the film because there is not exactly any side to route for, not even your title worthy protagonist at the heart of the film.
My suspicions are that Payne is the kind of person that thinks abortion is a pro-choice issue, but in his film, he chooses a lead character whose thinking is limited to when the next time she will get high, someone who clearly has spent nearly a lifetime making poor decisions. So, when it comes time for Ruth to choose, it hilariously becomes a matter of money, which side offers more short-term incentive to either have the baby or rid herself of it. Yet, even though she is a foul-mouthed patio sealant huffer, thanks to a clever script and Laura Dern's fantastic performance, Ruth is a sympathetic character. Ruth is a bit like a wounded stray dog, kowtowing in the face of superiors yet ready to fight over a scrap of food (or in her case some airplane glue), and in the end, she is wise enough to realize none of the parties fighting over her have her best interests at heart, they only really want her for their platform.
The comedy here is great, ranging from the subtle, to the crude, to the outright absurd. And, in a genre that is so formuliac and often pretty basic and empty, Citizen Ruth mangages to actually say somehting without coming off as the overy preachy and still, for the open minded, manages to be funny.
The DVD: Buena Vista
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, considering the low budget nature of the film and Payne's minimal visual choices in direction, this isn't the kind of film you expect great things from in terms of image. That said, the image looks fine. The films colors were intentionally toned down and given some flatness. There are the occasional scenes that could be sharper and have deeper contrast, but mostly it is fine with no technical quirks. Indie fans should be pleased.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Optional English subtitles. Serviceable but not jaw dropping, the films sound is pretty simple, light music score, mainly very dialogue heavy, so there really wasn't a tremendous need or room to spice up the soundtrack beyond the 2.0 presentation. It gets the job done.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailer--- Audio Commentary by director/co-screenwriter Alexander Payne, co-screenwriter Jim Taylor, production designer Jane Ann Stewart, and actress Laura Dern. Pleasant enough commentary, a tad sluggish and comments are pretty evenly split between patting themselves on the back and nice anecdotes about the film. Worth a listen maybe once, but not so rousing that you're likely to repeat it. –Oh, and Disney apparently felt the need to put a disclaimer on the commentary, but for the life of me I cannot fathom why. Nothing they say is nearly as acidic as the movie itself, but I guess Mickey's lawyers urged him to cover himself.
Conclusion: If you like your comedy pitch-black and irreverent, Citizen Ruth's aim is true and you should be pleased. The transfer is fine, decent image and sound and an okay commentary track. It is one of the better satires on the comedy shelves, and taking into account its subject matter, surprisingly excellent in its humor.