I’ve been thinking a lot lately about unsympathetic characters in American comedies, mostly because I’m worried about how much a few recent examples have pissed me off. In theory, films like Greenberg, with Ben Stiller as an unregenerate asshole determined to pollute L.A. with his imported New York surliness, and Please Give, in which every third line of dialogue is casually insulting or cheerfully abrasive or both, ought to be right up my alley. Ever since having my impressionable young mind warped by Dabney Coleman’s Bill Bittinger in the early-’80s sitcom Buffalo Bill, I’ve been drawn to the hilariously irredeemable. So why do I cringe—and not in a good way—when Roger Greenberg tells the woman he’s dating that she’s just wasted his time with the most pointless anecdote in history, then walks out of her apartment without so much as a goodbye? Why do I find it merely obnoxious, not funny or revealing, when someone in Please Give insists on hearing the details of how her grandmother’s neighbors plan to renovate her apartment when she dies, all while said grandmother sits in the same room eating her birthday cake? I can’t for the life of me locate the alleged humor or truthfulness in these situations, but being repelled makes me feel gross, as if some boneheaded studio executive with a sheaf of useless notes were pointing at me triumphantly and yelling, “See! See!”
So here’s exhibit A for the defense: Citizen Ruth, 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. And that, I submit, is the glory of it. Though Citizen Ruth satirizes both sides of the abortion debate, the scene I’ve chosen comes from its first half, in which the pro-lifers are wearing the targets. 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.
Right from the first shot—a close-up of a nurse who appears to be auditioning to replace Heath Ledger as the Joker—it’s clear Payne and Taylor aren’t striving for naturalism. And that context makes a huge difference. We can take pleasure in the emotional atrocity that follows because we recognize that everything we’re seeing is exaggerated for comic effect—as opposed to a single exaggerated element that’s been injected into an otherwise familiar, psychologically plausible world in order to give that world some ostensible edge. When Ruth finally loses it (“ARE YOU FUCKING PEOPLE DEAF? I SAID I WANT AN ABORTION!”), her outburst is funny because it’s directed at Nurse Joker and Mel Brooks vet Kenneth Mars, the guy who wrote Springtime For Hitler, both of whom embody grotesque parodies of insincere concern. There’s no passive doormat (see: Greta Gerwig in Greenberg or Rebecca Hall in Please Give) with actual feelings that might actually get hurt.
That sense of exaggeration even extends to the décor, which is pretty impressive, given that the room is empty to the point of appearing sterile. (It’s like some weird amalgam of an operating theater and a prison visiting room.) The framed baby photo is nicely handled, visible only twice in this roughly four-minute scene. First revealed in the long shot that steps back from the characters after Ruth first says she wants an abortion, it remains offscreen until Ruth is shown the “American Holocaust” movie, at which point Payne tracks forward until Ruth’s head swallows the baby whole. Most of the time, we’re looking head-on at the nurse and/or the doctor, who have a weird-looking lamp (I think) behind them—which seems superfluous, given that the table is lit directly from above by harsh you-vill-listen fluorescents—or we’re looking head-on at Ruth, who’s accompanied in the frame only by a small garbage can.
Having created a certain emotional distance with all this playful heightening, Payne and Taylor are now free to tackle some fairly serious issues while our guards are down. As goofy as this scene often is, it nonetheless accurately depicts the sort of manipulation that zealots employ to convert the weak-willed to their particular point of view. (Again, the film later directs equal animus at the pro-choice crowd.) Note that while the nurse informs the doctor that Ruth is eight weeks pregnant, the doctor proceeds to describe, using his Fetus Weeble, the physical characteristics that appear at 10 weeks—which is necessary, because at eight weeks, Ruth’s baby is still technically an embryo, not a fetus, and very little of it is “fully formed.” (The changes that occur in those two weeks are significant.) And it’s a cheap but effective trick to prompt Ruth to pick a name, thereby giving the being inside her a premature identity; for the rest of the film, various people refer to “Baby Tanya,” though its gender is never confirmed.
I confess that I had to dance around a bit in that last paragraph, trying to work out how to phrase certain things (“the being inside her”) in the way least likely to give offense to anyone. (I am staunchly pro-choice, for the record.) And yet Payne and Taylor stride into one of society’s densest minefields with awe-inspiring confidence. Citizen Ruth seems even more miraculous to me now, in our era of “schmaschmortion,” than it did upon its release in 1996; I can think of few recent American comedies so utterly fearless, to the point of wringing laughs from a destitute drug addict screaming for an abortion at the top of her lungs. Even the Silent Scream-style propaganda documentaries (I give up, bias confirmed), which hardly seem the stuff of comedy, are rendered ludicrous via facial expressions (the nurse’s smug grin as she watches Ruth flinch in the flickering light is priceless), bombastic music, and gracelessly blunt voiceover narration.
Still reeling from that experience, 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. Wanton cruelty, rudeness, and impudence can only amuse if they bounce. They shouldn’t embed. You can have The Office or Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, but you can’t have both at once.