Citizen Ruth (1996)
Abortion is always a difficult topic to tackle, because its two extreme sides - pro-life and pro-choice - have a "you're either with us or against us and there's no in-between" mentality. Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth is a political satire that does not take a stand on either side of the fence, instead choosing to remain neutral and expose the absurdities of each side.
Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is the very definition of troubled: an unemployed, drug-addled drifter with four children who were all taken away from her because she can't seem to get her life together. She's picked up for huffing and finds out that she's pregnant again, and the judge wants to impose a harsher sentence on her for endangering the fetus. This becomes a big news story, and soon Ruth finds herself being tugged at from both sides of the abortion issue.
Ruth is taken in first by the pro-life Norm and Gail Stoney, played by Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith, whose intention it is to convince Ruth to have the baby. They want to help her get her life together, and offer her the guest room in their modest house as refuge from the sea of reporters that want the scoop on Ruth's story. All Ruth wants is to be left alone and to keep her life private. Oh, but she also wants to get high all the time to escape her life.
After Ruth has some difficulty with the Stoneys, another member of the pro-life commmitte, Diane Siegler (Swoosie Kurtz), takes Ruth in, and reveals that she is actually an undercover agent for the pro-choice force. The tug of war then kicks off in earnest, with the pro-lifers offering a large cash reward to Ruth for having the baby, and the pro-choicers attempting to match it. All the while, neither side really seems to care much about Ruth at all; they're more concerned with their own agendas.
Now, nothing I have said here indicates that this is actually a comedy, but there are several laugh-out-loud moments. However, director/co-writer Alexander Payne, in this, his first film, and his later films, never attempts to design scenarios simply to make the audience laugh. He's more concerned with exposing situations, and if comedy results, then so be it. In my opinion, it's a great way of doing comedy: make the laughs come from putting characters in situations that they would avoid if they could, but circumstances rule that there is no alternative.
It's kind of difficult to universally recommend a movie like Citizen Ruth, because of the subject matter. A lot of people will say that abortion is not something you should joke about, and I absolutely agree with them. However, if you can see past the subject of abortion and instead consider this film as a study in herd mentality, I think it can be rewarding.
February 19, 2005