A rare social satire that takes effective shots at both sides in the abortion battle, "Precious" has an agreeably nasty sting. The focus of Alexander Payne's debut feature must certainly rank near the bottom, in terms of commercial subject matter, so Miramax must use what are bound to be some good reviews, along with controversy-building, astute marketing and perhaps even a nontraditional release pattern to lure viewers who would appreciate the film's qualities if it could be brought into theaters.

A rare social satire that takes effective shots at both sides in the abortion battle, “Precious” has an agreeably nasty sting. The focus of Alexander Payne’s debut feature must certainly rank near the bottom, in terms of commercial subject matter, so Miramax must use what are bound to be some good reviews, along with controversy-building, astute marketing and perhaps even a nontraditional release pattern to lure viewers who would appreciate the film’s qualities if it could be brought into theaters.

Previously known as “The Devil Inside” as well as “Meet Ruth Stoops,” pic still doesn’t have a title that adequately conveys either its concerns or irreverent attitude. It’s the closest thing to a Preston Sturges film to have come along in a while, a take-no-prisoners account of a clueless nonentity suddenly and unwillingly thrust into the limelight and used by opposing sides for their own selfish purposes in the divisive national debate.

The first target of Payne’s and co-scripter Jim Taylor’s scorn is the nominal heroine herself. The last word in dereliction and irresponsibility, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is poor white trash who already has borne four kids, has been declared an unfit mother by the courts each time, and spends her last bit of money to satisfy her craving for inhaling

spray-paint fumes (one alternate title proposed at Sundance was “Waiting to Inhale”).

A stray dog nobody wants, Ruth lands in jail for the umpteenth time and is shortly informed that she is pregnant again. An enraged judge, noting her sorry record, charges her with “felony criminal endangerment” of the fetus but privately suggests that he’ll reduce the charges if she goes to a doctor to take care of her situation.

As soon as the Christian Right in the Midwestern town gets wind of this, however, a couple from the flock, Norm and Gail (Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place), bail her out and take her in. While grateful for the roof and food, Ruth shows not the slightest inclination to change her ways, slipping out to party at night with the couple’s wayward daughter (Alicia Witt).

Used like a puppet to her benefactors’ militant pro-life ends, Ruth is dragged out to abortion clinic protest rallies and generally used for whatever propaganda they can think up until she is whisked away by Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), a spy within the conservative ranks who is actually a raging feminist cohabiting in sisterly fashion with the equally gung-ho Rachel (Kelly Preston) out on a farm.

This gives the pro-choice movement a chance to do its own brainwashing of the now completely confused Ruth. Before long, the Baby Savers declare a national alert, set up a vigil outside the farmhouse, call in a televangelist (Burt Reynolds) and offer Ruth $ 15,000 to have the baby, which turns the poor girl’s head around once again. The farcical warfare, with God’s army on one side duking it out with feminists and bikers on the other, finally reaches such a din that everyone loses sight of Ruth.

Director Payne may not yet possess all the skills necessary to completely pull off a full-scale social farce; he could profitably have added more comic invention around the edges, but he does score quite a few points, even-handedly ribbing the extremists in both camps. The lambasting style may be too broad for some tastes, but Payne restrains himself from tipping over into completely cartoonish caricature and manages to keep things moving without spinning out of control — no small achievement in farce.

Helping matters enormously is Dern, who lets it all hang out in portraying her character’s denseness; she skillfully gets laughs out of Ruth’s affinity for substance abuse and her inclination to go for the easiest solution to any problem. For the longest time, it appears that nothing will wise her up, and while the conclusion doesn’t indicate a sudden transformation, there is a gratifying suggestion that perhaps the nonsense swirling around her may have served to set her on a slightly more mature life track.

Of the supporting players, the always resourceful Kurtz gets the meatiest opportunities, and takes ample advantage. Reynolds is comically oversincere as the evangelist who may specialize in converting young boys.

Tech contributions on this low-budgeter are average.

Precious

(Satire -- Color)

Production

A Miramax release of an Independent Pictures production. Produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad. Co-producer, Andrew Stone. Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay, Payne, Jim Taylor.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), James Glennon; editor, Kevin Trent; music, Rolfe Kent; production design , Jane Ann Stewart; costume design, Tom McKinley; sound (Dolby), Jay Patterson; assistant director, Heather Kritzer; second unit director, Taylor; casting, Lisa Beach. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 1996. Running time: 104 min.

With

Ruth Stoops ... Laura Dern Diane ... Swoosie Kurtz Norm ... Kurtwood Smith Gail ... Mary Kay Place Rachel ... Kelly Preston Harlan ... M.C. Gainey Dr. Charlie ... Kenneth Mars Judge Richter ... David Graf Pat ... Kathleen Noone Jessica Weiss ... Tippi Hedren Blaine Gibbons ... Burt Reynolds Cheryl ... Alicia Witt Ruth's mother ... Diane Ladd
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