Citizen Ruth (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The average movie about the abortion debate tends to be preachy, melodramatic, and unbearably solemn. So, it comes as something of a shock that the latest venture to the front line of the pro-life/pro-choice battle is actually a comedy. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne has taken the slogans, name-calling, and behind-the-scenes tactics, and created a vicious satire that skewers (and probably offends) those on both sides of the issue. There's a serious message here, as well -- that in a war between ideologies, it's too easy to lose sight of the individual.

As ambitious and unconventional as Payne's approach is, however, it doesn't always succeed. The most serious and the most outrageous elements of the film occasionally work against one another. Citizen Ruth is moderately more successful than The Last Supper in attempting an evenhanded lampoon, but there are times when the comic elements seem forced and overplayed.

Laura Dern (Rambling Rose) is Ruth Stoops, a glue-sniffing, alcoholic drifter who has been arrested 16 times for "hazardous vapor inhalation". She has given birth to four children, all of whom have been taken away from her by the government. (She's a walking definition of the term "unfit mother".) Her family and friends have disowned or abandoned her. Now, after being jailed for getting high on patio sealant, she learns that she's pregnant again. The judge decides to allow charges of felony criminal endangerment of the fetus, but tells Ruth that if she gets an abortion, he'll reconsider. Suddenly, Ruth's case becomes a lightning rod for local activists. The struggle for Ruth's conscience pits the Baby Savers, run by an evangelical husband-and-wife team (played by Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place), against a pro-choice organization headed by a lesbian feminist (Swoosie Kurtz). The situation rapidly develops into a war where the weapons are coercion and bribery, and the last thing anyone seems to care about is Ruth.

Citizen Ruth starts out dark and grim, with the first ten minutes devoted to exposing Ruth in various states of degradation. In short order, she goes from being a whore to a beggar to a glue-sniffer. It's an uncomfortable way to begin any film, especially one that wants us to laugh. I'll give Payne credit for being daring, but his approach is not an unqualified success. The switch to comedy is unheralded, and may alienate more viewers than it entices. Personally, while I found the transition disconcerting, the results are ultimately worthwhile.

Laura Dern gives an excellent performance, allowing herself to be photographed in an extremely unattractive fashion, with no makeup, dark circles under her eyes, and lank, unwashed hair hanging below her shoulders. She plays Ruth as a selfish, but very human, character who only cares about the pro-life and pro-choice movements in relation to how she can benefit from them (preferably financially). In an odd way, the strength of Dern's acting could almost be seen as detrimental to the film. If Ruth wasn't this believable, the most over-the-top aspects of the satire wouldn't feel as overbearing.

Every character except Ruth is a pure caricature -- the personification of an exaggerated point-of-view. The most obvious example of this is the national pro-life leader. Played with delicious self-parody by Burt Reynolds, he is the kind of smarmy, hypocritical creep who gives televangelists a bad name. Holy and pious in public, he is shown to be vain, greedy, and arrogant in private (he even has a personal "boy toy" servant). Reynolds' liberal counterpart, portrayed by Tippi Hendren, is presented as more subdued, possibly because she has much less screen time.

Citizen Ruth has its share of bitingly funny moments, and some of the comedy is quite inventive. By structuring the film as a satire, Payne is able to make statements about the abortion issue that no straight film would likely attempt, and, as is often the case, there's a great deal of truth buried in the humor. In fact, Citizen Ruth's weakest moments occur not when it's savaging social causes and political concerns, but when it attempts to inject conventional drama into its exaggerated, outrageous milieu.

Citizen Ruth (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1