A slippery sub-genre of comedy that’s always tough to crack is political satire. Ingrained in a certain time and space frame, such films are prone to being culturally elitist; only deemed hilarious to people that are in on the joke. or knowing of the subject being lampooned. What’s the best American political satire? Alexander Payne’s Election from 1999, of course. A refreshingly scabrous take on simple-life suburbia and high school hierarchy, it set a benchmark for mainstream comedy, totally unafraid to be daring, provocative and intelligent. Clearly, I love that movie; so it’s a great shame that Citizen Ruth, Payne’s debut from three year’s previous, is an embittered disappointment.
Released in the same year as Tim Burton’s blighted moral panic satire Mars Attacks! – Payne takes aim at the controversial issue of abortion. Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a glue-sniffing, unemployed derelict, finds out she’s pregnant for the fifth time. Asleep on the sidewalk after a lonesome drugs binge, she’s thrown into the slammer by the friendly and familiar local cops. Tired of seeing her parade through the court, the judge is willing to drop the charge if she agrees to an abortion. Soon, however, Ruth’s case comes to the attention of a pro-life organisation, headed by Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith), who live by religious platitudes and right-winging jingoism. They take Ruth into their home with promises of unconditional care, but when she attacks their son for disrupting her sniffing, they send her off with another member of the group.
Payne satirizes the pro-life advocates (Burt Reynolds is hilariously cast as their smarmy leader, and Mary Kay Place’s character as a “whiter-than-white” sidekick), sending barbs at their deception and manipulation. To express a totally unbiased opinion, Payne spreads the nastiness around when Ruth is rescued from her Christian saviors by pro-choice activists, headed by stern lesbians (Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston) and Vietnam vet biker Harlan (M.C. Gainey). The situation rapidly develops into a battleground using the weapons are coercion and bribery, it’s predictable chaos; where the last thing any of the fanatics seem to care about is Ruth.
Distinguishably an Alexander Payne joint, Citizen Ruth isn’t as successful as the cult director’s proceeding films. Dern is wonderfully vile in the tortured central role; able to kick, scream and shout profanities like a white-trash incarnation of The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker. Unlike Ruth, the secondary characters are complete caricature; assembled out of evangelical public figures fuelled on a steady diet of self interest. Characters that are hard to be anything more than annoying, regardless of how ludicrous the gospel they preach may be.
Looking at the film sixteen years after it’s release, it’s amazing to see that abortion is still a political hot-potato; a blunt, black-or-white debate which is still highly contestable. Bold as he is to tackle this theme, Payne skirts around both sides of the war zone without ever developing a stance on them; much more interested in satirising the self-serving egomaniacs holding the debate rather than their potent messages. The result is slightly unnerving, with foul-mouthed anti-heroine Ruth as the only character to reach a moment of clarity by the film’s close.
Citizen Ruth is a boisterous debut from Alexander Payne. Beginning as a brazen comedy, it ends up with a shaky, compromising coda that negates the audacious satire.