Citizen Ruth (1996) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for substance abuse, strong language and a sex scene
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, Kathleen Noone
Small role: Alicia Witt, Diane Ladd, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Review published February 15, 2001
There is a George Carlin routine in which he states that given the right context, there really is no taboo subject for comedy. He states that even something as serious as rape can be funny. Don't believe him? Then imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.
With this idea in mind comes Citizen Ruth, a scathing satirical look into the abortion issue that delivers not only the laughs but the knowing insights as well. The film follows Ruth Stoops (Dern, A Perfect World), a down-and-out drug-abuser who has more arrests and rehabs than she can recall. The local judge (Graf, The Brady Bunch Movie) in the small town is so fed up with seeing her face, and the fact that she has had four children already (all of which had to be given up for adoption due to their mother's behavior), that when he discovers she is pregnant again decides to make law history and have her put in prison for endangering the life of her fetus, making it clear he would be a bit more lenient with her if she were to have it aborted. This sets off the Pro-Lifers in town, who pay her bail and adopt her into their home. She is then caught in the struggle over what to do, since it seems all factions are using her in order to make political points.
I was interested in seeing this terrific comedy due to the director, Alexander Payne, who later made the brilliant comedy, Election. Both films are very similar in styles, with small-town representations of big national issues playing out amid a simple story. Both films are also unpredictably funny, yet very authentic to it's ideas despite the outlandish goings on. Every aspect of the film is given credibility and realism, from the clothes to the cars, and personalities of its characters that make the situations that much more funny because they don't feel contrived.
Despite the heated political themes, Citizen Ruth appears to spoof both sides of the issue sufficiently, and with such fervor, that I had no idea which side it wanted to take except to make the point of how much of a spectacle has become of such a serious issue. While some may be offended that heartfelt issues can be lampooned, it is done with such insight and disregard for the target's feelings that it rings the bell of truth every time out. The characterizations are spot on, with a terrific cast of character actors lending memorable performances all around, including very funny cameo appearances by Burt Reynolds (Stick), Tippi Hedren (Marnie) and Diane Ladd (Christmas Vacation).
Although most people may not have heard of Citizen Ruth, I highly recommend it to anyone who has seen and enjoyed Election, and it is well dusting off the shelf of your local video store. Witty and brilliantly handled, it probably does nothing to settle the abortion issue, but in its holding up a mirror to the prominent players in the respective movements, causes us to chuckle at what a farce it has become.
©2001 Vince Leo