Nobody is going to accuse writer/director Alexander Payne of being chickenshit. For his first feature, the hilarious Citizen Ruth, he has not only chosen the number-one issue a filmmaker is likely to get killed over -- abortion -- but made a comedy about it.
In Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern stars as Ruth Stoops, a glue-sniffing drifter. When Ruth gets popped for the umpteenth time, she finds out she's pregnant (for the fifth time). The impatient judge, tired of seeing Ruth and her ilk in court, decides to define her solvent inhalation as felony child endangerment. Privately, he suggests to Ruth that he might be willing to drop the charges if she agrees to an abortion. Ruth is conflicted but willing.
Before she can act, however, her situation comes to the attention of the local pro-life organization, headed by Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith). The Stoneys, who live by religious platitudes, take Ruth into their home with promises of unconditional love. Of course, even unconditional love comes with conditions. When Ruth smacks the Stoneys' young son for trying to interrupt her glue-sniffing, the two freak out.
The first third or so of the film makes such buffoons of the pro-life advocates that it's in danger of getting snotty: No matter how much Payne's satirical barbs at their tackiness and self-deception seem documentary in their accuracy, the sense of a hipper-than-thou manipulator chuckling at the yokels almost chokes the humor.
But just when things appear to be turning sour, Payne saves himself by spreading the nastiness around. By a plot contrivance, Ruth is "rescued" from her Christian saviors by a group of pro-choice activists headed by two lesbians (Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston) and a Vietnam-vet biker (a terrific M.C. Gainey). The movie then pokes equivalent fun at feminist cliches.
As the film progresses, the focus becomes less about abortion and more about personal freedom. The activists on both sides are painted as opportunists: Nobody really wants Ruth to make her own decision, and everyone wants to use her to "send a message" -- a phrase that becomes a running gag.
Payne was doubtless inspired by the twists and turns in the life of Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade infamy -- a woman frequently described as "simple," who has been bickered over like a prize heifer by the spin artists on both sides of the conflict. Ruth Stoops is certainly one step beyond simple; we never know whether she started dumb, but by the time we meet her, her habit of inhaling every available solvent has definitely gotten her there.
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Dern does a terrific job of giving Ruth recognizable human feelings without ever apologizing for her or ennobling her. We cheer at any intimation of Ruth regaining control of her life from the factions that pretend to look out for her; at the same time, we know that once she regains control, she'll go straight back to sniffing glue, getting drunk and sleeping with anyone who will put her up for the night.
Both Fellini and Woody Allen have remarked that casting is something like 90 percent of directing -- and Citizen Ruth bears witness to that notion. Smith, primarily known for playing villains, reveals himself to be an adept comedian; Place, Gainey, Kurtz, Preston and the always-wonderful Kenneth Mars (the Nazi from The Producers) are right on the money. The sheer appearance of Burt Reynolds as a smarmy pro-life leader gets a laugh, and Reynolds has been a good enough sport to don one of the world's worst rugs for the part.
Directed by Alexander Payne. With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, Tippi Hedren and Diane Ladd.