Citizen Ruth

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 01/08/97)

By Mary Weems

In Citizen Ruth, the American anti-heroine arises, in the person of, whoda thought it, sweet, blonde Laura Dern, whose vulnerable, down-turned mouth always seems about to collapse into a sob. In Citizen Ruth her expression alternates between hopelessness and the momentary euphoria she achieves stuffing her face into a paper bag, and getting high from inhaling the hazardous vapor she puts inside - like the fun can of Patio Sealant, she buys after bumming fifteen bucks from her brother. A derelict in Omaha with four children in foster homes, she gets arrested again, passed out on the sidewalk.

And, wow, she's pregnant again, and about to be locked up unless -- the judge tells her this confidentially -- unless she stops having babies she can't take care of and gets an abortion. She's sobbing on the floor of the jail cell when four members of the Baby Savers, a pro-Life group, arrested for protesting at an abortion clinic, enter the cell and take her in hand.

Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith play the Stoneys, a Pro-Life couple who pay Ruth's bail, take her home with them, and campaign to get her to have the baby. Ruth was sure she wanted the abortion. But her vapor-suffused mind is none too strong, and she's easily swayed by the oozing warmth and cheer of the pro-Lifers, not to mention a comfortable bed.

But the battle for Ruth's mind and destiny isn't over -- she falls from grace when the Stoneys find her in an alley, high on their son's model airplane glue, a darkly humorous scene punctuated by Mr. Stoney's cry: In the name of God, I want you to get off drugs, right now. Next she finds herself in the Pro-Choice camp, which includes a lesbian feminist played by Swoosie Kurtz. A major media war is escalating, as Ruth becomes a symbol of the abortion controversy, with national leaders from both sides flying in. Catch Burt Reynolds as the unctuous hero of the pro-Lifers.

But ultimately Citizen Ruth doesn't really come down on either side of the abortion issue, even if it can't help spoofing the pro-Lifers themselves. As a robotic Pro-Life doctor, Kenneth Mars is ludicrous doing his wooden spiel to convince Ruth that abortion is murder -- but, when he holds up a tiny plastic fetus and asks Ruth what she wants to name it, it's a point for the pro-Lifers. The Stoney's live in a ticky-tacky suburban house, while the pro-Choice lesbian couple live in an idyllic rural setting, where they are much more gently satirized as they sing a song to the Goddess Moon Mother.

Citizen Ruth has fun with its material, but it's also about the dilemma of Ruth, stuck in a self-destructive pattern, and forced to choose between two sides whose arguments tear her in one direction, then another. It's intelligent and complex, the characters are finely drawn, the pace is right, and those are the right reasons to see a film.

Copyright 1997 Mary Weems

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