Citizen Ruth (1997)

Seconds after it starts, it is obvious that *Citizen Ruth* is a very special, very peculiar movie. While a crooner extols the virtues of romance on the soundtrack, singing “All The Way,” Ruth gets unsentimentally, unceremoniously humped. Having done with her, the humper screws her yet again by throwing her out of his filthy hovel.

With nowhere else to go, Ruth (Laura Dern) heads for the paradise of a hardware store, where she finds her escape in a can of spray paint and a brown bag. Ruth is a huffer, generally unconscious, virtually without conscience, an abuser of household inhalants, and the mother of four.

Make that five. When Ruth is arrested, she learns she’s pregnant again, and charged with endangering her fetus. The judge offers to go easy on her if she “takes care of her problem.” Ruth knows what he’s talking about, although the irony of it escapes her. It doesn’t escape her new cellmates, however, four fanatical evangelical anti-abortion housewives who bail her out and take her home for a little friendly indoctrination.

Thus it is that the heretofore invisible and inconsequential Ruth Stoops finds herself a cause celebre at the center of the abortion debate. Never has there been a more inappropriate poster girl for anything: Ruth is dumber than a sack of hammers, and she can resist anything except temptation. Deep down, though, she really does want to get her life together, and lacking the cogitative capacity for anything but single-mindedness, she figures her new friends might be both a meal ticket and her ticket to freedom.

As funny and fairminded as a movie about abortion could hope to be, *Citizen Ruth*, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, is wholly original and full of surprises. The movie generously skewers both fanatical anti-abortion and pro-choice factions as each group tries to manipulate Ruth to their advantage in this absurd satire. The writers have created an ideal foil in the delightfully dense Ruth, whose slack-jawed incomprehension of the larger issues render her remarkably resistant to manifestos, messages and permanent opinions; Ruth doesn’t really care about abortion as social issue. Ruth isn’t a big picture kinda gal -- she’s really only in it for the money both sides are dangling in front of her, and dense as she is, she ultimately manages a bit of effective manipulating herself once she realizes, in the ingeniously clever and twisted end to her saga, that she, Ruth Stoops, doesn’t actually exist for either side, that she is quite literally invisible to zealots who only see issues.

Dern’s performance as Ruth is brilliantly fearless. On her best days, Ruth is a scoundrel, a scabrous skank, a devious, self-absorbed loser. She’s brazenly unsympathetic and unattractive, except in contrast to the nutcases who take her in, and ultimately get taken. Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith are the Stoneys, pious right-wing anti-abortion leaders of their local “Baby Savers” chapter, who talk Ruth out of an abortion. Swoosie Kurtz and an unusually unglamorous Kelly Preston are the moon-worshipping lesbian feminists who harangue her back to the other side. Burt Reynolds does a lewd and greasy turn as the pedophilic pro-life leader Blaine Gibbons, while M.C. Gainey is a loud and greasy pro-choice Vietnam vet clinic escort, and the only person in Ruth’s crazy life who seems to see and accept her for who she really is.

*Citizen Ruth* is brilliantly twisted and funny, a toothy satirical attack on the righteousness and zealotry of both sides of the abortion debate. This movie rightly recognizes that no life, even one as depraved and defiled as Ruth’s, can ever be simplified down to just two choices. Ruth is far too kooky and screwed up to ever face a mere dilemma, and she’s too self-centered to ever make the choices anybody else wants her to make. That is precisely what makes her a truly choice heroine.