Rating: **** (out of ****)
A little more than thirty years ago, audiences were both outraged and delighted when Stanley Kubrick made light of the threat of nuclear war; critic Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that one of his companions at a 1964 screening of Dr. Strangelove exited the theater in tears. Fifteen years later, a similar reaction greeted Monty Python's satire of early Christianity, Life of Brian -- for my money, one of the greatest comedies ever made. Citizen Ruth, a new film directed by first-timer Alexander Payne, isn't quite as remarkable as its predecessors, but it's equally audacious, mining laughs from perhaps the most ferociously divisive issue in contemporary life: abortion. In tackling this potentially treacherous terrain, Payne and his co-screenwriter, Jim Taylor, made two important choices: one smart, one brilliant. The smart choice was not to choose sides, to satirize both factions of the debate; the brilliant choice, the one that gives the film its bite and prevents it from becoming mired in bathos, was to make the film's protagonist, Ruth (Laura Dern) -- a young pregnant mother caught in a tug-of-war between pro-life and pro-choice advocates -- as unsympathetic, manipulative and (heh) ruthless as those who would exploit her. This is risky business, as there's nobody with whom the audience can fully identify, but the gamble pays off; guaranteed to offend virtually everybody (and I can attest that it's a nightmare dating movie; the argument it inspired went on for hours), it's the year's sharpest and funniest comedy. I'll go further: as of this writing, with only a handful of 1996 films left for me to see, it's my favorite non-documentary film of the year. Payne and Taylor were clearly inspired by the social satires Preston Sturges wrote and directed during the 1940s; as in Sturges, even the least important supporting characters are vivid and memorable (in addition to Dern, who is fantastic, the excellent cast includes Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, and Swoosie Kurtz...but even the actors whose names I didn't recognize or remember make an impression), and though Ruth is unquestionably the film's nominal protagonist, most of its scenes involve large groups of jabbering people, with Ruth at the center, rather than the shot/reverse-shot duets that permeate most movies. And while the film ridicules everybody who even momentarily walks into the frame, the general tone is one of bemused affection (Sturges) rather than cynical misanthropy (Billy Wilder -- though as Ruth seems to belong in a Wilder picture, what we have here is something of an amalgam of the two). As venal and selfish as Ruth is, the filmmakers clearly love her, and they extend the same largesse to every character she encounters; Citizen Ruth is somehow simultaneously vicious and sweet-natured, and the tension between these two contradictory tones is absolutely perfect for the material, laden with emotional baggage as it is. See it, but consider seeing it alone.