Citizen Ruth

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Alexander Payne

REVIEWED: 06-05-97

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 company, Miramax.

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 heart shape.

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 deserves.

--James DiGiovanna

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