Dubbed a "pro-laugh" comedy by its promoters, "Citizen Ruth" is indeed funny, although the warring factions on the front line of the abortion debate aren't likely to think so. Still, director and co-writer Alexander Payne skewers both sides with his canny satire, and the movie is likely to appeal to that lump of people in opinion polls who are decidedly "undecided."
Laura Dern plays Ruth Stoops -- a name that sounds as low as she is -- who is undecided to the point of utter negligence. A "huffer" who gets high off spray paint and other substances best used in well-ventilated areas, she is introduced as she has nearly unconscious sex with a fellow loser while the romantic tones of "All the Way" accompany opening credits.
Thrown out long enough to bum $15 off her brother and get high, she's arrested and discovers she's pregnant. She faces a felony charge of endangering her fetus (she's already popped out four babies who are no longer in her possession), so the judge suggests she might want to get the problem "taken care of." Enter the Baby Savers, an Operation Rescue-type group that learns of her plight and decides to save her.
Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith are the always-praying mom and dad who bring Ruth into their perfect home, where their son has plenty of model glue (all right!) and their daughter sneaks out at night to party. These life-affirming folk eat a lot of meat -- the director's sly implication that creatures with four legs don't fare very well with these protectors of creatures with two.
Ruth is definitely a fish out of water, and she's genuinely shocked when she realizes the "clinic" she visits not only won't give her an abortion, but inundates her with propaganda. (After seeing a horrific anti-abortion video, she whimpers, "I slept in some Dumpsters. Maybe I slept on some babies.")
But wait! Swoosie Kurtz plays an undercover abortion-rights supporter who spirits Ruth away. These cartoonish feminists don't fare much better under director Payne's eye; they all seem to be lesbian moon-goddess worshipers. Ruth goes with the flow, switching philosophies between bottles of booze. Offered money by both sides, she begins to realize how important she is. Even the heads of the rival factions come to her Midwest town to intervene -- Burt Reynolds as the slimy abortion foe, Tippi Hedren as the slick abortion-rights supporter.
Laura Dern is wonderful, playing natural, stupid, transparent Ruth at least as well as she's played spunky good girls in "Jurassic Park" and "Blue Velvet." And she manages to give her character just enough self-awareness to make us cheer as she wriggles under the thumb of her purported protectors, even though we know she's probably only a paint fume away from disaster.
Though a bit overlong, "Citizen Ruth" is entertaining, and between the laughs, it sneaks in its clever anti-message.
Starring Laura Dern
Directed by Alexander Payne
Released by Miramax
Rated R (language, sex, drug use, mature themes)
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 2/28/97