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A Depression-era comedy for the ’90s, Citizen Ruth is the rags-to-riches story of a most unlikely heroine. Indeed, one of the pleasures of director/co-writer Alexander Payne’s feature debut is simply figuring out that Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is the heroine. Introduced in the sweaty midst of a demeaning failed transaction—sex for shelter—Ruth is a huffer: For her, a paper bag full of paint, glue, or patio-sealant fumes is the equivalent of a martini before dinner. (Not that the dismayingly emaciated Ruth seems to eat dinner.) She’s also pregnant, which is where Citizen Ruth’s wild ride through Middle American mores really begins.

Mentally, the addled Ruth is forever two steps behind the people around her, but she has no reproductive handicaps. Indeed, she has already produced four children, who live with her understandably resentful brother. It’s after he turns her away that Ruth buys some patio sealant, takes a deep breath, and passes out. Picked up by some local cops who’ve encountered her before, Ruth is dragged before a judge who informs her she’ll be charged with felony endangerment of her fetus—unless she gets a abortion. That ultimatum doesn’t sit well with some of her cellmates, who happen to be members of the Baby Savers, a militant anti-abortion group. Baby Savers Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith) end up paying Ruth’s bail and taking her home, where they can watch over her pregnancy.

Ruth’s unborn child soon becomes the most popular fetus in her unidentified city. (The film was shot in Omaha, Payne’s hometown.) After Ruth disappoints her new hosts by continuing to huff, she is adopted by another Baby Saver, Diane Sieglar (Swoosie Kurtz). Diane, however, turns out to be an infiltrator who’s actually affiliated with a pro-abortion group. She and her lover Rachel (Kelly Preston, who plays Tom Cruise’s overambitious fiancée in Jerry Maguire) are members of a lesbian group who sing to the “goddess mother” moon when they’re not tangling with the Baby Savers.

Diane offers to pay for Ruth’s abortion, but that’s just the beginning of the bidding war. As the news media arrives in force, the Baby Savers call a national alert, bringing leader Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) to town and publicly offering Ruth $15,000 to take her baby to term. A member of the pro-abortion group matches the offer, and their leader, Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hedren), also arrives. Ruth is transfixed by audio-cassette get-rich courses and TV commercials extolling FHA mortgages; now, in a world of dubious schemes, she finally has a real chance at a big score. (It’s a chance, by the way, that she pursues to the very end of the credits, which end with a throwaway gag.)

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It’s almost inevitable that Citizen Ruth eventually turns its attention to greed and media frenzy, two subjects that all Americans can deplore (at least in theory). Payne and Jim Taylor’s script lampoons both anti- and pro-abortion forces, which somewhat blunts the effect of their satire. Despite some mordant commentary—especially the scene of Ruth at the Baby Savers’ “clinic,” which she doesn’t understand is not an abortion facility—Payne and Taylor don’t pursue the anti/pro-abortion confrontation to a final meltdown. They’re brave enough to broach the subject, but they’re not crazy.

The film’s eye for Middle American detail gives Citizen Ruth an appealing freshness, but the most audacious touch is the choice of heroine. Like a post-punk Capra, Payne has created a wide-eyed, slow-thinking protagonist redeemed by just one American civic virtue: a nose for the payoff. Ruth’s growth from appalling to endearing (abetted by Dern’s cannily comic performance) is the movie’s real narrative. And if his point is that U.S. citizenship really belongs only to those with more than a few bucks in their pockets, then he has tentatively addressed a controversy even bigger than abortion.

Toward the end of Marvin’s Room, a dying woman passes out at Disney World; as she slumps, Goofy towers over her, concerned. That’s the tragicomic tone attempted by Scott McPherson’s play-turned-movie, and it’s a difficult one to achieve. By some accounts, the play mostly succeeded. The movie mostly does not.

With Meryl Streep playing blue-collar and Robert De Niro (one of the film’s producers) in a bit part, Marvin’s Room is clearly meant to be a special event. It also has a sober subtext: McPherson died of AIDS in 1992, two years after his play’s premiere. As directed by stage veteran Jerry Zaks, though, the film doesn’t seem singular. Only the acting saves this from being just another example of Hollywood’s taste for slapstick and bathos.

In the film’s early scenes, Zaks cuts between two different branches of the family: Bessie (Diane Keaton) lives in Florida, where she has devoted herself to caring for her long-dying, near-vegetative father Marvin (Hume Cronyn) and her unwell but much livelier, soap opera-obsessed Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon). Meanwhile, estranged sister Lee (Streep) lives in Ohio with her two sons, Charlie (The Indian in the Closet’s Hal Scardino) and Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio). The latter is in full adolescent brood, which leads him to set ablaze a pile of family pictures. As Bessie is visiting absent-minded Dr. Wally (De Niro) to learn she has leukemia, Hank’s symbolic bonfire gets out of hand and incinerates the family house.

Hank ends up in an institution, and Bessie ends up calling Lee. A bone-marrow donor could save her life, and Lee, Charlie, and Hank are the most likely candidates. The two sisters haven’t seen each other in 20 years, so there are plenty of resentments and recriminations when Lee and the boys arrive in Florida. Bessie and Hank soon become pals, although the surly boy must declare his independence by refusing to commit to being tested as a bone-marrow donor. Ultimately, of course, emotional breakthroughs are provided for Lee, Bessie, and Hank.

McPherson’s semi-autobiographical script attempts to balance the revelations with a steady flow of banter, much of it distinctly sitcom in nature. “What do you think I mean by what do you think I mean?” asks Hank’s shrink, and hugging Aunt Ruth sets off the automatic garage door. (The latter is about as low as the humor goes.) The dialogue is a little more agreeably off-center at the medical clinic, where Dr. Wally’s bumbling manner is underscored by the oddball comments of the new office manager (Dan Hedaya). Still, the screenplay resists presenting a tidy sitcom moral.

Principally, what distinguishes Marvin’s Room is two exceptional performances. Streep is assured as always, but it’s Keaton and DiCaprio who bear watching. Like Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, DiCaprio is lost in period pieces, even ones as time-tripping as Romeo and Juliet, but as a contemporary troubled teen he effectively conveys concomitant exuberance and anguish. Even more striking is Keaton, who plays her customary conflicted, flustered nice girl without any of her customary mannerisms. She’s remarkable for what she doesn’t do, which is more than can be said for McPherson’s overly jokey script or Rachel Portman’s goopy score. CP