Citizen Ruth March 25, 2016
Citizen Ruth is an exceptional, unforgiving satire that somehow makes a black comedy out of a hot-button topic that will perhaps never stop being piping: abortion. But it doesn’t pick sides, and it doesn't it make a joke out of the issue. It doesn’t even seem to be about abortion It is, rather, intensely focused on the passion that surrounds both pro-choice and pro-life activists; lost in their determination to “win” a battle that will never be won, they easily forget about their humanity in favor of proving an unprovable point.
The directorial debut of Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), Citizen Ruth is precise in its parody and its empirical standpoints. Never supposed to be about an “issue,” Payne has stated, the film is an over-the-top study regarding the nature of fanaticism. And so he shrewdly does the unthinkable, making us question the motivations of advocates while also mixing a brutal and funny pasquinade martini.
As dauntless as the film itself, Laura Dern gallantly stars as Ruth Stoops, an unremitting fuck-up whose existence solely consists of getting high, drunk, or pregnant. As the film opens, she’s having rough sex with a guy she barely knows in a flop house; as soon as they’re finished, he viciously throws her out, causing her to go to the corner store and purchase some patio sealant to huff out of a paper bag in protest.
The cops, who find her unconscious on the street, know her by name, and when she’s taken to court a short time later, Ruth also discovers that she’s pregnant. It will be her fifth child, the other four from various fathers and living in separate homes. She’s already been deemed as an unfit mother, twice. The judge is disturbed by her lack of responsibility, and propositions her with an ultimatum outside the courtroom — if she gets an abortion, he promises that he’ll deal with her upcoming felony charges less severely.
Ruth has minuscule brain power and considers the idea to be fair. Her mind is only changed, though, when she meets a group of pro-life activists in a holding cell, who take her under their manipulative wings and make her a poster child for the abortion debate. Soon begins a tug-of-war between pro-life and pro-choice zealots, half the movie spent with conservatives willing to bribe her with thousands of dollars to keep the child, half with left-wingers who also are unopposed to paying her off to ring victorious in a never-ending game.
Taking into consideration just how easily Citizen Ruth could have sunk into a pool of controversial quicksand had it just contained one problematic plot point, it’s impressive how distinctly unbiased it remains throughout its length. With no obvious heroes or villains, we’re absorbed by the extremism of its pro-lifers and its pro-choicers, how they’re so bent on claiming Ruth as being on *their side* that they forget that a woman who can’t do shit (besides losing her temper and getting hammered) will, in the end, never make a dent on why having a baby versus aborting a fetus is the *right* thing to do.
Most of the film’s humor stems from Ruth’s stupidity, and from the way the vigorous activists around her don’t actually seem to much care about her well-being — they care about their individual missions, which will never really be settled (twenty years later and the abortion topic is still as boiling). It’s an endless cycle, and I love the way the ending is exactly what it should be: a flippant cop-out.
The performance are excellent, too, verging on the edge of insanity yet maintaining believability because its actors don’t allow for cartoonishness. Dern is first-rate as the film’s titular Ruth, never necessarily likable, but always effortlessly watchable because we’re so inclined to see what idiotic actions her character will commit next, what doltish words will come out of her drugged-out mouth. Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, and M.C. Gainey are perfect as the movie’s vehement pro-choicers, and Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, and Kathleen Noone are slimily saccharine as the pro-lifers. Tippi Hedren and Burt Reynolds stop by with show-stopping cameo roles.
But despite the fact that we’d expect Citizen Ruth to rub some people the wrong way, it is a conspicuously hilarious dark comedy that never goes too far, rather making ingenious observations that don’t hit us as being brilliant until we really sit and think about them. Payne and Taylor have devised a terrific screenplay; Dern gives one of the best performances of her career. A-