Citizen Ruth

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Alexander Payne

REVIEWED: 09-22-97

Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren

"Looks like the tin man," chuckles the cop as he points to the ring of silver spray paint around Ruth's (Dern) nose and mouth and tries to rouse her from her inhalant-induced stupor. Ruth is an utter mess, a real fuckup; with her kids taken away from her, she finds herself pregnant again and in court for inhalant abuse. The judge takes her into his chambers and suggests (sotto voce) she "see a doctor" and "take care of this problem." A pro-life group (led by Smith and Place) gets wind of the conversation, bails Ruth out of jail and takes her in, giving her a place to stay, food, clothes, Christian love, and "counseling." Never mind the fact that Dern expertly portrays a totally unfit mother, no poster child for prenatal care, and takes advantage of whoever is putting her up; soon she's a pawn in the abortion debate. Kurtz turns out to be a mole from the pro-choice side and takes in Ruth after she steals Place's money and spends it on whiskey and spray paint at an abortion rally. Safely under the wing of the new-agey Kurtz and her lesbian lover, Ruth is indoctrinated towards the pro-choice side and, since years of booze and airplane glue has left her with the intellect of a Labrador retriever, finds her impressionable brain in a dilemma. Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, is the extra-smarmy head of the pro-life side (with an extremely questionable relationship between him and a 13-year-old boy whose mother he talked out of an abortion) and Tippi Hedren plays the pro-choice top banana. Unfortunately, Citizen Ruth's overly long running time takes a basically funny premise and beats it to death, but it still deserves credit for taking the one ugliest and most divisive debate in public discourse and turning it into a comedy. Regardless of which side you come down on in the abortion debate, it portrays both sides as being strident, dogmatic, and uncompromising zealots. Maybe, pro-lifers and pro-choicers can see this and reflect on the overheated rhetoric used by both sides, but probably not.

--Jerry Renshaw

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Other Films by Alexander Payne
Election

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