Friday December 13, 1996
With "Citizen Ruth," which tries to skewer the excesses on both sides of the red-hot debate over abortion, director and co-writer Alexander Payne cops out, and the result is off-putting, despite a sparkling cast headed by a fearless Laura Dern in the title role.
Dern is at first hard to recognize as the wasted Ruth Stoops, who in her small Midwestern town has been arrested 16 times for "hazardous vapor inhalation" and has been in treatment for substance abuse six times. Ruth talks a lot about being "in a bad place" and "trying to get her life together" but really lives to party and get high sniffing glue or whatever else she can inhale. When she nearly overdoses, lands in a hospital and then jail, she's found to be pregnant--she already has had four children, none in her custody--the judge threatens her with felony criminal endangerment if she doesn't get an abortion.
Regardless of the threat, she makes it clear she doesn't want yet another kid she's incapable of taking care of, but she's swiftly overtaken by the local chapter of an anti-abortion organization, the Baby-Savers. A Baby-Saver couple (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith) pay her bail and take her into their home. Place and Smith contribute hilarious caricatures of folksy born-again abortion foes, and "Citizen Ruth" looks to take no prisoners.
However, the picture starts going awry early on because Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor haven't come to grips with the reality that you have to come down on one side or the other of the abortion issue, which doesn't allow much in the way of a middle ground beyond chastising both sides for exploiting indigent, irresponsible young women like Ruth. Basically, you either believe in a woman's right to choose or you don't.
Payne clearly believes in Ruth's right to think for herself, but in a stab at fair play he tries to have fun with the abortion rights group that tries to co-opt her from the Baby-Savers. He presents that group's local leader (Swoosie Kurtz) as an essentially serious, intelligent, three-dimensional person, but for dubious laughs he suggests strongly that she and virtually all her comrades are gay and are given to worshiping a moon goddess.
Payne at least holds his ground with Ruth, at heart an unrepentant, foul-mouthed reprobate with survival instincts as strong as her self-destructive tendencies, and Dern plays her with gusto and absolutely no special pleading. Burt Reynolds turns up as the Baby-Savers' national leader, a snake oil salesman if ever there was one, and as his opposite number, the abortion-rights advocate head, an elegant, take-charge Tippi Hedren.
Citizen Ruth, 1996. R, for substance abuse, strong language and a sex scene. A Miramax presentation. Director Alexander Payne. Producers Cary Woods & Cathy Konrad. Screenplay by Payne & Jim Taylor. Cinematographer James Glennon. Editor Kevin Tent. Costumes Tom McKinley. Music Rolfe Kent. Production designer Jane Ann Stewart. Set decorator Lisa Denker. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Laura Dern as Ruth Snoops. Swoosie Kurtz as Diane Sieglar. Kurtwood Smith as Norm Stoney. Mary Kay Place as Gail Stoney.