Citizen Ruth Reviews
Citizen Ruth, the feature debut of definitive contemporary film wit Alexander Payne, a filmmaker of rare intelligence who's on the short list of American directors with final cut rights for their films, is a satire with the reckless courage to take on both sides in the abortion debate. There are no positive characters in the film, certainly not Ruth, whose preferred state is oblivion, and who perks up only when both sides start making cash offers. Whereas almost every film has a market in mind, here is a movie with a little something to offend anyone who has a strong opinion on abortion.
Who's left to market this movie to? Perhaps those diminishing figures who have a high regard for movies with audacity and sharpness, and do not demand to be gratified and bolstered by the characters on the screen. Some may find it too delineative to compensate more than a single viewing, but nevertheless a stimulating one-time wonder. Others see more ironic fine points upon multiple viewings. This makes it all the more valuable because what satire must do in order to work is take effective shots at both sides of whatever issue it holds to censure.
The movie is an arcade of finely honed satiric sketches. Thrown into jail, Ruth finds herself sharing the same cell with hymn-singing "Baby Savers" who have been jailed after a protest at an abortion clinic. She is promptly taken under the wings of Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place, who bring her home to an innocent milieu, innocent, i.e., until she finds their son's airplane glue. Gail oscillates between worship of life and acid disputes with her teenage daughter, who sooner or later helps Ruth slip away to a party.
One of the Baby Savers is Swoozie Kurtz, who uncovers herself as a mole for the pro-choice side, and whisks Ruth off to the wilderness retreat she shares with her lesbian lover, Rachel, who sings to the moon. They organize for Ruth to have an abortion, however already the Baby Savers have issued a national alert, the network crews are camped out in the parking lot, and the national leaders for both sides have flown into Tulsa to make their stands.
Shot in Nebraska just like Payne's exceedingly brilliant subsequent films Election and About Schmidt, Payne has a good eye for the character qualities of fanatics with the compulsion to control other people's lives. The leader of the pro-choice side, played by Tippi Hedren, is rendered as so hip and shrewd that you know it's a disguise for indescribable skeletons in the closet. And the leader of the pro-lifers is played by Burt Reynolds as a sloganeering fraud who glorifies the "American family values" crap while retaining a boy toy on his payroll.
There is nerve in the determination to make Ruth an unredeemed dope-head whose sole impulse is to go for the cash. Though unjustifiably careless and ignorant as Ruth is, she becomes extremely funny via Payne's fitting of her into such incongruous surroundings as much as Laura Dern's hysterical performance. Attesting herself as a superb physical comedian, the in-shape and gangly Dern lashes and yells her way through the catastrophe that explodes over her quandary. And yet with momentous satirical elegance, this definitive sleeper watches how both sides exploit this oblivious nonentity's soul, or lack thereof, in a variety of endeavors to forcibly convey their stance to the American public. I have misgivings that the two sides in the debate would in reality undertake a bidding war, but that's what satire is for: To take reality and broaden it into farce.
The movie sheds light on the ways in which mainstream films condition us to count on formula endings. Most movies are made with the credence that no one in the audience can be counted on to think about more than one concept at a time, at the very most. I'm happily bowled over when it arises that there will be no "good side" and "bad side" in the mĂȘlĂ (C)e over Ruth, and astonished when it seems that the movie will not turn up securely with a resolution to satisfy everyone. Some states of affairs, Payne appear to be contending, just cannot be reconciled to everyone's liking. Perhaps, for some viewers, that will make this not a comedy at all.