Citizen Ruth
Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren, Alicia Witt. Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Photo © 1996 Miramax Films
Citizen Ruth is a picture just iconoclastic enough to steal the title of the cinema's most often-cited masterpiece and stick it on the story of an even more despicable individual than Charles Foster Kane. Ruth Stoops, who is quite perfectly named, is an inhalant-addicted, aggressively stupid, shrewishly materialistic sourpuss who knows what's good in life—patio sealant, long baths, walkmans—and what sucks—having no money, having nothing to eat, having another baby she cannot possibly care for. One of her favorite garments throughout the picture is a kitschy pink T-shirt that says "Wonder Girl," when of course, the movie makes clear, Ruth is anything but.

Now, there is no sure-fire reason why this material has to be fashioned into a comedy, but thank God it was. Ruth is a mess of a human being, and I'm sure there are grand social statements (or at least lamentations) to be made about her, or about the societal conditions that allow her type to endure. Newbie director Alexander Payne would prefer to have us howling at her riotously short temper and her almost total obliviousness as she sulks, headphones blaring, into a grand media frenzy that she wouldn't even understand if she tried. Citizen Ruth isn't as daring as it thinks it is, and the material, while not stretched too long, is nonetheless a bit thin even for the 105 minutes over which it is currently told.

We begin the film when Ruth, making her 16th appearance in court after an arrest for inhaling dangerous substances, is informed by the exasperated judge that she is with child. "Did you know you were pregnant?" he fumingly asks her. "I don't know" is Ruth's glum answer, and the way Laura Dern collapses her bone-china features and twists down her mouth is one of the movie's biggest assets. Ruth is already such a misanthrope, so grossed out and irritated by the people around her and her own strung-along life that she's already prepared with the perfect attitude to take on the various crusaders who invade her privacy and fight to make her their media mascot after the judge encourages her to have an abortion.

The first side we meet in the war over Ruth are The Baby Savers, a grotesquely but somewhat predictably zealous Christian outfit whose stand-out local members, Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith), meet Ruth during Gail's own incarceration for disturbing the peace. The Stoneys post Ruth's bail and take her in as their own incubated reform project, much to the delight of Ruth, who has no better sense of what she's doing in this pastel-shaded split level than what she concludes is something akin to having "just won the lottery." She, of course, couldn't be more wrong, but at least Payne and Dern make these sequences the big payoffs in the comic ride of the film. Ruth keeps the whole Stoney family waiting to eat dinner while she sits in the tub marveling at the perspectival shift that occurs when she closes only one eye, than switches and closes only the other—and the faucet seems to move! She tries to contribute colorful personal anecdotes to the Stoneys' air of good cheer and reaching out, but all she comes up with is a marvelously inappropriate harangue about the "bastard motherfucker" boyfriend who kicks her out in the movie's first scene.

Mary Kay Place, who was very affecting in a totally different role in John Grisham's The Rainmaker the following year, is fantastically fussy ("Oh, Ruth, you know, we don't actually sit in those chairs") and doting on her young sun ("He's my miracle!") without ever being quite slapstick. Smith, as her husband, also rides the comic notes gracefully, but the pro-choice contingent who eventually sneak Ruth out right from beneath the Stoneys' noses are also cast with credible acting talents. Swoosie Kurtz plays a lesbian women's rights advocate who "spies" in the pro-life camp just long enough to squirrel Ruth away into her home. An unrecognizable Kelly Preston is her live-in lover and political ally, and M.C. Gainey has some nice readings as Harlan, a Hell's Angels-type who is the strong arm and the reckless loon of the pro-choice outfit. Outside Kurtz's home, the Baby Savers materialize with a candlelight vigil and large campaign from members across the country, all to convince Ruth to rejoin their fold and refuse the abortion option. They are not above promising her $15,000 to do so, and Ruth—obviously bowled over by how much enamel paint that could buy her little whiffer of a nose—is gleefully happy to accept.

The central joke of Payne's film (co-written with Jim Taylor) is that, of course, neither side of the abortion debate cares at all about Ruth Stoops, and after all, 99% of the world would be hard-pressed to. She is titanically irresponsible and totally off-putting, without being quite a monster, just a sort of banshee-cum-leech. Dern plays the part well and is fearless in her assent to look and act repellent. Still, it's a thin conceit for a part, since the movie is ultimately not as concerned with Ruth either as it is with lampooning the false pledges and insincere hypocrises of the different camps that would dictate to Ruth how to govern her own body. In other words, by creating her as a boisterous but thin comic agent for a larger, more broadly comic farce, Payne does not seem any more uniquely interested in Ruth than is Place, Kurtz, or either of their factions.

The other big strike against Ruth is that it just doesn't seem big enough, or quite funny enough, to warrant being on the big screen. This is an HBO movie through and through, and without the vertiginous lunacy and formal inventiveness of a howler like Michael Ritchie's The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, we can't shake the feeling that Payne is that clever, would-be satirist growing up in the back row of English class who actually convinced the school to put on his play. Certainly there is not one shot in Citizen Ruth that makes it in any way a visual experience; it's all in the script, which even in its funniest moments, is not complicated or wickedly contrived enough to really satisfy our expectations. Certainly Payne and Taylor go to no pains to explain why Ruth's particular case has become so targeted, even nationally debated, by the shark schools circling around her, and their occasional reaches for sentiment and drama are almost uniformly unconvincing or out of place.

But there's little denying that Citizen Ruth has its moments of great pleasure, as when Ruth's meathead ex-boyfriend happens to stop alongside her in Kurtz's car at a traffic light, and rips at the Saran Wrap covering his broken window to excoriate her. "Suck the shit out of my ass!" Dern screams back, giving a fair indication of the level Ruth pitches her conversation—and to her it really does seem like conversation. "Who was that?" a bewildered Kurtz inquires. "I don't know, some guy," Ruth responds, apparently more than halfway done forgetting the exchange ever happend.

Confusion is the other recurring state for Ruth that Dern manages to squeeze for several belly-laughs. When Preston's activist scholar empathizes with Ruth that it's women like her who are constantly victimized by pro-life hoodlums, "indigent women, Third World women, women of color," Dern gives her a two-second scornful stare and then allows, "I'm not a colored woman!" She also does priceless physical acting, not just in her startling/snicker-worthy inhalation scenes, but in her Frankenstein's-monster walk and her kicking, screaming defenses against policemen, parent substitutes, and any number of other folks who try to apprehend her at different ponts in the picture. Watching Laura Dern lying on the ground, rolling on her back and kicking both of her feet out so that neither Kurtz or Preston can touch her is something you've gotta see to...well, I guess you probably believe me anyway, but you've still gotta see it.

The film as a whole, with its uncertain pace and dull compositions, doesn't quite deserve these nuggets of Dern at her best, and even the star cannot always figure out where to pitch her performance in a film that's pretty permanently all over the place. Thankfully, there are enough hysterical pit-stops on the trip all over the place that Citizen Ruth still qualifies as reasonable and sometimes dead-on entertainment. Of course, most of it works at the same level as Ruth's sniffed-up fumes; there's a commendable high to the goings on, but it's almost all gone in the morning. There are even those moviegoers out there who swear by this picture, and I can't imagine anyone having a really bad time. I almost wish there were that possibility. If Citizen Ruth actually had the ability to offend, it might also have had the spirit and dazzle to really captivate. C+

Permalink Home 1996 ABC Blog E-Mail