Given the depressing nature of most “Oprah Book Club” selections, it’s a wonder Prozac isn’t the talkshow’s biggest sponsor. Still, it’s hard to quibble with her taste. “The Book of Ruth” comes to CBS with that tony imprimatur, and the result is a taut, uneasy movie, buoyed by Christine Lahti’s venomous performance as a woman who needn’t worry about being voted mother of the year.
CBS couldn’t have picked a more understated production to face off against NBC’s flashy disaster miniseries “10.5,” but the faults here are no less fractious and poised to erupt, lurking barely beneath the surface.
Told through flashback, the story opens with the title character (Nicholle Tom, quite grown up since “The Nanny”) doused in blood and suspected of murder, subsequently re-creating the sad trail that brought her to this point. Neglected by her mother, Maylene (Lahti), she can only watch with resignation as mom showers affection on Ruth’s can’t-get-away-fast-enough brother while affording her Cinderella-like contempt.
Quiet and awkward, Ruth stumbles into a relationship with the unstable and mostly aimless Ruby (“8 Mile’s” Evan Jones). Typical of Ruth’s luck, they meet decidedly un-cute: He asks if she wants to see his “one-eyed snake” on their first date, then forces himself on her.
Seemingly out of sheer desperation, romance blossoms, with the two marrying and Ruby moving in with Ruth and Maylene. Mom’s disgust with her son-in-law nearly eclipses her disdain for her daughter, who finds herself uncomfortably caught in the middle.
Director Bill Eagles and writer Suzette Couture establish a brooding sense of menace, thanks in no small part to Lahti’s seething presence as a woman whose lacerating anger is released in small, repeated pinpricks. It’s to Lahti’s credit that her horrid character conveys sadness without engendering sympathy as she selectively lashes out at those around her.
Tom and Jones, meanwhile, are nearly as impressive as the hapless daughter and her pill-popping beau, whose childlike qualities include an unsettling penchant for destructive tantrums.
Despite hinting at the not-unusual notes about sacrifices and choices made, “The Book of Ruth” resists easy answers.
For all the talk about the TV movie’s gradual fadeout from network TV, CBS’ Sunday franchise has managed to weather that storm this season, delivering several solid yarns after setbacks that included the network’s bailing out on “The Reagans” and dismal exploitation of the Elizabeth Smart case.
By that measure, “Ruth” offers a reminder of how effectively and briskly such a small, character-driven story can be told in the movie format, honoring the novel that inspired it by becoming the equivalent of a page-turner.