[Deep Focus]
CITIZEN RUTH
GRADE: A-

Ruth Stoops, thank God, is no role model. In the course of her adventures, she does not learn a lesson. Hers is not a heartwarming story. It is, however, seriously funny, and in this era of dopey action and dim-witted farce, that in itself is heartwarming enough.

Citizen Ruth is a fearless comedy on the subjects of abortion, fanaticism, and personal responsibility. The promo copy compares it to the films of Preston Sturges, and for once the connection isn't overstated. Citizen Ruth shares with Sturges a decidely wry sense of humor in regard to the most basic tenets of human behavior, but that's not to say it's a throwback. Ruth Stoops is the glue-sniffing, child-neglecting, gutter-inhabiting poster girl for the worst possible impulses of her generation. She's the kind of girl whose white trash boyfriends kick her out of bed and into the cold hallway outside; whose white trash idea of a good time is the carton of aerosol cans marked "new product!" at the hardware store; whose white trash t-shirt reads, in a white-bread typeface, "Wonder Girl."

As played to the hilt by Laura Dern, Ruth seems on the verge of falling off the planet. She's lonely and friendless, and what family she has left is trying to disown her. Since she's aggressively irresponsible, it's hard to feel sorry for her. It's only when Ruth is picked up by the cops -- smashed out of her gourd on an admixture of liquor and fumes for what must be the umpteenth time -- and a routine physical exam reveals that she's pregnant that she becomes a human being of some value. After she's jailed for endangering her fetus, Ruth registers as a blip on the radar of the local chapter of a national pro-life organization. Before long, a mysterious couple shows up at the local jailhouse to post Ruth's bail and take her home.

No, this isn't TV-movie-of-the-week stuff, though part of Citizen Ruth's delicious appeal is that it so clearly could be. Like everything else in the movie, Ruth's stay in a hypocritically Christian household is played for laughs -- the family's daughter is a rebellious free spirit who sneaks Ruth out of the house in the middle of the night, and while the father clearly thinks of himself as a pillar of the community, his feelings toward Ruth are more than a little unclean. Later on, Ruth will find herself taken in by a houseful of pro-choicers, including a couple of lesbians who sing hymns to the moon goddess.

Ruth is the object of so much interest because the pro-lifers want to hold her up as an example of a women who won't sacrifice her unborn fetus, even under her dire personal circumstances. Meanwhile, the pro-choice group wants her to abort the child as an affirmation of a woman's right to choose. As the two factions play tug-of-war with Ruth's fragile body and soul, it becomes clear to Ruth that nobody wants her to make a choice about anything. By the time the crisis escalates into a full-blown media spectacle, both sides are offering Ruth thousands of dollars if she'll just make the choice that they tell her to.

Part of Citizen Ruth's agenda is not to come down clearly on either side of the issue, but the movie wouldn't be much fun if it didn't take a stand. It does, sensibly, and without a cop-out. At the end of the film, Ruth finds that she is able to quite literally disappear, becoming a white-on-white shadow in the superhot media spotlight. The movie doesn't exactly have a happy ending, although for Ruth, it ends happily. That's affirmation enough.


Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring Laura Dern
USA, 1996

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