IF YOU SEE only one comedy about a paint-huffing, unwed,
pregnant mother of four who becomes a pawn in the abortion wars,
make it Citizen Ruth.
This deeply layered film utilizes both an intelligent visual
sense and a strong script, rare combinations in this day of beautiful-but-vapid
"art films," many from Citizen Ruth's production
The story is a twisted variation on the classic tale of the American
individual going against the group and finding fortune. Laura
Dern plays Ruth, a drug-addicted, homeless woman who has abandoned
four children and is pregnant with a fifth. Arrested for illegal
inhalation of hazardous vapors, she's thrown into a jail cell
with a group of "baby-savers." These pro-life activists
take her on as a cause célèbre because a judge has
told her she'll be charged with child endangerment of her unborn
fetus if she doesn't have an abortion. Delighted by the contradiction
in this, and eager for revenge against this judge who's ruled
against the baby-savers in their clinic harassment, one of their
flock (Mary Kay Place, in her usual role of perky suburbanite)
takes Ruth into her home to convince her to keep the baby.
Hilarity ensues when one of the baby-savers (Swoosie Kurtz) turns
out to be an undercover, lesbian, pro-choice activist who "saves"
Ruth from the Christian hordes so that she can become a poster
child for abortion rights.
As both sides try to claim Ruth as their own, a bidding war breaks
out, with the pro-lifers offering her $15,000 to have the baby
and the pro-choicers offering an equal amount if she aborts it.
Mostly, semi-literate Ruth just wants to be left alone with some
cash and a paper bag full of paint fumes.
The script is consistently funny and, while refusing to take
sides, avoids the trap of offering a "fair and balanced"
portrayal of the issue: both sides are skewered and stereotyped.
The Christians are nauseatingly cute, dressing Ruth up in a sweatshirt
decorated with fluffy puppies and parading her in front of the
news media at a clinic protest. Their national leader, played
with apt unctuousness by the always slimy Burt Reynolds, fresh
from a trip to "the tomb of the unknown baby," talks
about how he saved a young boy, apparently the crusader's catamite,
from the "abortuary."
Not to be out-done, the pro-choice group puts Ruth in a Frida
Kahlo T-shirt and trains her to spout feminist slogans. They sing
embarrassing "women's music" odes to the moon.
Both sides treat her like a stray puppy, even having a "calling
contest" to see which she will choose.
While much contemporary cinema has given up on careful composition
of shots in favor of excessive use of closeups, director Payne
takes the more difficult route of using balanced visuals to provide
commentary and humor. Every meal at the tacky pro-life house includes
several kinds of meat, including whole game hens photographed
to look like fetuses. When the lesbian pro-choice couple hugs
Ruth, they smush her face between their shoulders, forming a bizarre
Even small touches like character names are resonant: The anti-abortion
activists name Ruth's unborn fetus "Tanya," apparently
a reference to Patty Hearst's nom de guerre when she joined
the Symbionese Liberation Army. Like Hearst, Ruth and Tanya seem
to be hostages-turned-spokeswomen in ideological wars.
Dern takes risks with her role as Ruth, frequently looking completely
unattractive with splotchy skin, greasy hair and a strung-out
slump. She takes the chic out of heroin-chic. She's also not afraid
to go all out in a blatantly comic role, and she pulls it off
without humiliating herself the way so many dramatic actors do
when attempting comedy.
While all the performances are on target, what makes this film
so successful is its refusal to dumb down the issue or pander
to any group. When television takes on the abortion issue the
message is always the same: Abortion is a painful choice for any
woman, but should remain a choice. For Ruth, however, abortion
is not a difficult choice until she falls into the hands of those
who wish to use her to "send a message." Rather, as
it is for many women, for Ruth abortion is a medical process that
will alleviate a difficult situation.
Ruth's attitude, and the negative portrayals of all sides of
this issue, have made this film a hard sell. Citizen Ruth
originally opened last December and was slated for national release
in January, but has been skipping from market to market trying
to find a niche. It would be nice if American audiences could
accept a film this funny and cutting in spite of the fact that
there are no well-defined heroes nor a truly sympathetic lead.
It does have one strongly American element: the ideological belief
that the individual is always more important than the group. I
hope this is enough of a hook to give the film the audience it