(1996)3.5Derek ArmstrongAlthough little-seen, Citizen Ruth introduced the film world to one of its best new satirists: director Alexander Payne, whose follow-up, Election (1999), won raves for skewering high school politics (indeed, the entire American political system) with dead-on finesse. No less ambitious in his debut, Payne goes after the abortion debate with rawness and vigor, shrewdly refusing to favor either camp. Instead, he exposes the transparent agendas of both sides, getting terrific help from Laura Dern, who plays Ruth Stoops with impressive disregard for audience sympathy. Strung out and utterly amoral, Dern's Ruth is a heroine typical of Payne's caustic wit -- in a landscape devoid of good-hearted impulses, this is the person left to support. It's a courageously unlikable and funny performance by Dern, and she's surrounded by character actors (Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Swoosie Kurtz, and even Burt Reynolds) who inhabit their aggressive personality types with relish. What's remarkable about Payne's light touch is that he can craft a totally unsentimental film filled with soulless characters and still manage to leave the viewer feeling kind of bouncy and fulfilled. Citizen Ruth is a strong debut from a bright new talent.