The choice is yours
For me, great comedy serves two functions. The first is so obvious it's barely worth pointing out: to make us laugh, or at least chuckle heartily. The second, IMO, is almost as important, and tends to be what separates the good from the great: comedy needs to say something. It needs to send up society's absurdities, cultural eccentricities and political insanities. It's that extra bite alongside the giggles that defines the timeless likes of Dr. Strangelove, This is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski, Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Gold Rush. Great comedy satirises and provokes. Hilarity is a welcome bonus.
It's taken me a while to get around to Citizen Ruth - Alexander Payne's 1996 feature debut - but it's a film that stands out as a particularly stellar comedy, or at least one that regularly flirts with greatness. The fantastic Laura Dern plays Ruth - a substance abusing mother-of-four, just out of prison. She isn't out for long before she's found comatose after sniffing spray paint out of a brown bag. She discovers she's pregnant, but a frustrated judge is left with no option but a further prison terms. He advises her that he might be able to reduce the sentence if she has an abortion. However, she's bailed out of jail by a Christian family who appear to want to help her. They're not as altruistic as they seem, though, and before she knows it Ruth is unwillingly caught up in a nationwide battle between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
That synopsis should indicate that Citizen Ruth tackles some controversial themes. It's rare for an American movie to be tread these provocative waters. It's even rarer for them to make fun of them. But that's what separates the film from the crowd. More Election than Sideways, Citizen Ruth shows Payne as a director who's willing to make fun of one of American society's most insane debates. Obviously, the Christian right are mercilessly mocked throughout: a highlight of the film shows Ruth visit a 'pro-life' clinic where the locals attempt to brainwash her through ridiculous pseudo-science and hilariously blunt propaganda videos (comparing abortion to the Holocaust). But this is a film that doesn't take sides: the extreme feminist pro-choicers who show up halfway through are every bit as ludicrous as their opponents (they serenade the moon in one particularly surreal scene). In fact, despite all their pro-choice rhetoric, they're also just using Ruth to get their message across. Woman's choice be damned as long as the Christians lose. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor satirise both sides with brave scrutiny. The Christian right are illogical zealots, while the feminist left are hypocritical oafs.
Stuck in the middle is Ruth. Laura Dern is an astonishing comic force in this film, and further proof of her standing as one of American cinema's finest contemporary actresses. She's portrays a dumb woman who just wants to get high. She doesn't quite understand the war she's inadvertently forced into, and is willing to side with whoever will give her the most glue money. Her reactions to the absurdism unfolding around her are constantly entertaining and frequently hilarious.
What's particularly fascinating about Ruth as a protagonist is her almost complete lack of a character arc. Screenwriting 101 stresses a character must undergo a transformation of sorts over three acts. Payne casually disregards this rule to exhilarating effect. From start to perfectly-judged end, she is driven by her selfish desires. Drug addicts aren't the most likely comic foil - nor would it be acceptable if all cinematic portrayals of drug addiction were this silly - but through confident writing, directing and acting Ruth emerges as a classic comic creation. The acting elsewhere is solid - including Kurtwood Smith as the local leader of the Babysavers, a knowingly seedy Burt Reynolds as his national leader and Swoosie Kurtz as a lesbian pro-choicer spying on the Babysavers - but Dern dominates every frame she's in.
Citizen Ruth is pitch black comedy that's provocative and challenging. It challenges us to reflect on the dangers of zealotry, our perceptions of drug addiction and the inherent problems with the abortion debate. These aren't easy themes, and this could have easily been an exploitative piece of work. But it isn't - it instead asks us to reconsider the way we engage with the issues it explores. Clever visual design and a quirky soundtrack move things along nicely, even during the film's messier and zanier moments. Most importantly, however, Citizen Ruth makes us laugh. And that, ultimately, is what makes it a sadly under-seen and under-appreciated comic gem.