I was probably one of the five people that saw and loved SMOOTH TALK. I watched it a lot as a teenager. I felt like if I had a twin sister – she’d look a lot like Laura Dern. Long limbs, tall, long face. I have to say I was resistant to CITIZEN RUTH when it first came out. It seemed so on the nose, too deliberate or something but it’s not at all... it’s so sublime and covert. It’s incredibly smart. Every time I watch it, I can’t believe how I once misjudged its brilliance – maybe it was the poster or the way they tried to market it but it’s Alexander Payne / Jim Taylor at their most genius and irreverent. I feel Laura Dern is one of those actors – who probably has to fight like Tyson to get every role. Her look is so unusual, beautiful, as my twin sister would be, but not conventional at all. Laura Dern has the talent and skills to spare and no film shows off her ability and smarts like CITIZEN RUTH. I have to thank my friend Jon for making me keep CITIZEN RUTH in the rotation. I finally get it.
It takes a very smart actor to play someone this dumb.
Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops in Payne’s nasty little black comedy about abortion only cements her status as the go-to girl for playing women who live in the crusty underbellies of society. Here, as the clueless, glue-sniffing mother of four who finds out she is unexpectedly pregnant, Dern must begin as a complete degenerate who by the end of the film remains a degenerate, just one that is more informed than most. Her performance is physical comedy and bravery to the ninth degree. Dern twists her features, her lanky limbs and mugs exaggeratedly for the camera; everything is big. Her gestures, her voice and gruff language, and in a few scenes, her hair, all take on a larger than life quality and rather than becoming a cartoonishly-drawn version of poor white trash, Dern expertly gives Ruth a palpable sense of hopelessness and scared confusion. When all is said and done, she is able to humanize a pure wretch of a character, and even make her funny, but the most impeccable thing about this performance is the way she does it in such an expressively unsympathetic way. We shouldn’t love Ruth Stoops, but we do. That is all thanks to the skill of Dern. As much as I love a lot of actors today: Adams, Naomi Watts, Kidman…etc – No one I could think of could pull off what Laura Dern in this film. The tone of the film is completely in Laura Dern’s hands – and she nails it.
CITIZEN RUTH is the first and probably least widely seen film from the team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who went on to make Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. As played by Laura Dern, who embraces the role with a ferocity that deserves a medal of valor rather than an award, Ruth Stoops ranks among the most deliciously venal protagonists since Billy Wilder’s heyday—indeed, the movie features nobody with whom any sane audience member could possibly identify for a moment. CITIZEN RUTH satirizes both sides of the abortion debate, RUTH STOOPS is a drug addict who’s already had several children removed from her care, Ruth has just been charged with reckless endangerment of her current fetus, and may do felony prison time if she has the child; here, a “Babysaver” volunteer has dragged her to see some medicos with an agenda.
The scene where the “Babysavers” first announce that they’ll give her money to come back to them and she screams with savage glee. It’s the scene where you really put all the pieces together and acknowledge that Ruth truly lives in her own selfish universe…and is never going to change.
Ruth, in this clip’s final seconds, turns and looks directly into the camera lens—the only time she does so in the entire film. I’ve never been able to settle on whether her look says, “Help!” or “Can you believe this shit?”—But, then, that’s precisely the line that CITIZEN RUTH straddles so expertly, in large part because of its willingness to eschew social realism. Ruth Stoops is a fantastic character, but place her at the center of a movie set in the real, recognizable world, and she’d be ghastly, not funny. Dern is able to make her ghastly and know deep down – the audience is laughing their asses off.
Dern is nothing short of brilliant. She manages to play dumb without lowering herself. Ruth is an uneducated waste of a life blob-force. Her Ruth is as crafty as an addict would have to be, and she hasn't an ounce of compassion for anyone but herself, but she is plucky and indomitable, and you can't help but admire her loutish essence. She is the last character on Earth anyone would claim as a heroine, but she bests all her supposedly smarter and more dedicated opponents by being sneakier and more underhanded than any of them. As Payne cunningly plans it, we root for her - bad and stupid as she is. This is a wonderful movie about rough justice.
It’s a genius dark comedy satire. Laura Dern understands the genre Payne is attempting and throws herself into the greedy simplistic mind of a total loser who doesn’t really want to change – she just wants to get by to her next glue fix.