Saturday 14 May 2011

From the archive: "Citizen Ruth"

Before Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, director Alexander Payne and his regular writing partner Jim Taylor came to prominence with Citizen Ruth, a sly satire on Middle American values. Laura Dern is Ruth Stoops, solvent abuser and soon-to-be single mom who falls in with a Christian couple (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith) and finds herself the rope in a tug-o'-war between the pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbies. All the virtues of Payne's later films are already much in evidence here: the superb showcase a Payne/Taylor script provides for its key players; an ability to find shape and character in the great flatness of the American hinterlands; a sense of irony that never quite tips over into the misanthropy blighting most contemporary US satire.

The latter comes down to the writers' understanding we have to have somebody to root for, if anything is to be at stake amid the smart-mouthing. Though unheralded as such, this may yet go down as Laura Dern's finest hour, superb as a foul-mouthed, misguided but essentially sweet woman; even though disenfranchised and wronged, kicked back and forth by life, her Ruth still clings to the right thoughts and deeds, as we all like to believe we do. There's an argument that once it sets up its stand-off, the plotting leaves nothing to do save to chopper in new, richly characterised kooks (Burt Reynolds as a pro-life lynchpin, Tippi Hedren as his adversary); and there's not enough Alicia Witt (there never is, I find). But a decade on from its first release, Citizen Ruth appears only more relevant in its dissection of American religious fervour, and the self-interest of the secular Left. It even makes glue-sniffing funny.

(May 2006)

Citizen Ruth screens on BBC2 this Wednesday at 11.50pm.

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