You and I both may have complex feelings about reproductive rights, but the lucky folks to the right and left of us don't--they're blessed with absolute, black-and-white knowledge. The movies, with few exceptions, have steered clear of this debate, for the same reason that many of us tend to avoid it in conversation--it's a no-fun topic, whoever you're talking to. But young director Alexander Payne has found a way to inject some levity into the matter with his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which earned much attention late last year when it debuted. Rather than the abortion quarrel itself, Payne sends up the quarrelers--the career partisans entrenched at both ends.
The title character in this punchy, all-too-plausible satire, played by Laura Dern, is a train wreck of a young woman named Ruth Stoops, a homeless inhalant addict in Omaha, Nebraska. When she's arrested for the umpteenth time for nearly killing herself by huffing spray-paint fumes, it's revealed in court that Ruth is pregnant with her fifth child--the others live with her brother. The appalled judge offers Ruth an unconventional sentencing deal: She gets off easy if she agrees to terminate the pregnancy.
Ruth's happy to oblige, but then she's bailed out by pro-life activists who meet her while they're in jail for blocking a clinic. They put the pressure on her not to abort, but then she falls in with pro-choice activists. Seizing on opportunity, the two sides clash, making Ruth's fetus the object of a bizarre bidding war. The "lifers," on the pretense of rebutting the charge that their camp only cares for children up to the point of birth, offer Ruth a sizable bribe to have the baby. A moneyed member of the "choice" camp agrees to match their offer for Ruth to make her own decision.
Payne begins Citizen Ruth with a sober, relatively realistic tone. The imagery is overcast, the humor grim and gallows. But by the time Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren descend on the scene as honchos of their movements--"life" and "choice," respectively--the film has gently rolled over into broad parody. The latter-day Reynolds has become a sort of rubber-chicken King Midas--everything he touches turns to broad comedy. Payne's gradual heightening of absurdity is purposeful, however. It has the effect of clearing the room of the squabbling extremists so that, after the credits roll, sensible people can discuss the matter sensibly.
Payne's gallery of mendacious, sugary-voiced Fundamentalists and tough, calculating feminists is well-played by the likes of Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, Swoosie Kurtz, M.C. Gainey, Kelly Preston and Kenneth Mars, among others. But the heart of Citizen Ruth, the reason the film works, is Laura Dern's fine, painfully convincing performance.
It's long been clear that Dern is a major talent--her beautiful, neglected work in Blue Velvet is one of the keys to that film's erotic power, and she was charming in her recent high-profile role on Ellen. But elsewhere, she's often seemed curiously indistinct and lacking in personality. Somehow, she found a soul connection to the grungy, pathetic, infuriating Ruth. She gives the character an unsentimental poignancy and a loose-limbed comic abandon. She manages to suggest that Ruth Stoops (to conquer?) is, at some level, unknown even to herself, a sort of transforming angel, sent to stir the pot of controversy with her junkie guilelessness.
Most impressively, Dern manages to accomplish all of this without tidying up Ruth a whit--there are times when you can almost smell her with your eyes.
Directed by Alexander Payne; with Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren, Mary Kay Place and Kelly Preston.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.