* The tale of Melita Norwood is one of a world at war punctuated by political negotiations, espionage, illicit sex and love. Sadly, Red Joan, the film inspired by her life and based on the book of the same name, is largely devoid of the intrigue that usually accompanies such weighty topics. In 1999, Norwood (named Joan Stanley in the film and played as a young adult by Sophie Cookson and in old age by Dame Judi Dench) was exposed as a Soviet spy who shared British atomic secrets during and after World War II at the behest of a charismatic communist organizer (Tom Hughes) whom she had met in college and fallen for. In the movie, that eventually lands Joan's future lover and colleague in jail, at which point she begins to question whether she's actually doing good by helping Russia develop its own nuclear weapons as a way to deter any nation from using them. Such intense personal, patriotic and philosophical entanglements should make for meaty material onscreen, but sadly most everything about Red Joan falls flat. Shoddy writing and two-dimensional characters who become easy to disdain sadly waste a plucky performance by Cookson—and Dench might as well not be in the film she's so criminally underused. Instead of a complex study of an immensely complicated woman, Red Joan is oversimplistic to the point of insult and barely attempts to explore the deeply meaningful questions its title character struggles with. R. DONOVAN FARLEY. Fox Tower.
Ask Dr. Ruth
** A documentary about Ruth Westheimer need not work too hard to prove she's fascinating. Seemingly everyone who's met (or even seen) the 4-foot-7 German who became a radio and television guru for safe, non-discriminating, pleasurable sex in the 1980s agrees on that. And just to observe the 90-year-old Westheimer in the present day—razzing radio hosts, booking it around Washington Heights and joking bawdily as ever—is a delight. She's undimmed by both the weight of her accomplishments and the tragedies of her long life. The problems with Ask Dr. Ruth are not Dr. Ruth's problem. Filmmaker Ryan White (Netflix's The Keepers and HBO's The Case Against 8) tries out a half-dozen different documentary approaches—fly-on-the-wall portraiture, media criticism, childhood psychology, staged reunions—and ends up with a film conspicuously less intriguing than its subject. The worst byproduct of this waffling is 15 minutes of dreadfully stiff animation depicting Westheimer's upbringing as an orphan of the Holocaust. Now, for those learning about her for the first time, sheer interest in her life story may outweigh the haphazard delivery. On the other hand, to someone who grew up with Dr. Ruth's idiosyncrasies and insights, this doc risks being less illuminating than any average episode of Sexually Speaking. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21.