Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/8/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revised Content.
Directed by Alexander Payne and co-written with Jim Taylor, Citizen Ruth is the story of a spray-paint huffing woman who becomes pregnant as she is caught in the middle of a war between pro-choice figures and pro-life people. The film is comedy that not only ridicules both political sides of the issue but shows the absurdity of humanity all because of one screwed up, dim-witted, drug addicted woman named Ruth Stoops played by Laura Dern. With a cast that includes Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, Alicia Witt, Swoozie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, David Graff, Tippi Hendren, Dern's real-life mom Diane Ladd, and Burt Reynolds. Citizen Ruth is a funny, smart comedy about a political debate that goes terribly wrong.
After getting kicked out by her boyfriend, Ruth Stoops seeks to find money to buy some alcohol and spray-paint to sniff at. After getting arrested for her troubles, Rush learns she is pregnant for the fifth time as Judge Richter (David Graf) puts her in jail for endangering her fetus. While the judge offers to lessen the charge if she has an abortion, Ruth meets a conservative Christian in Gail Stoney (Mary Kay Place) and her friend Diane Siegler (Swoozie Kurtz) as they've been released by Gail's husband Norm who also bails out Ruth. Gail and Norm take Ruth in she meets their rebellious, heavy metal-loving teenage daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) while learning that Norm is the local head of an anti-abortion group called the Baby Savers. After learning about Ruth and her situation, Norm wants to take her situation public as a meeting with Dr. Rollins (Kenneth Mars) and his nurse (Joan Hennecke) has them claiming that abortion is a new version of the Holocaust.
With Ruth suddenly used as a pawn for Norm and Gail's cause, a protest towards an abortion clinic's guard named Harlan (M.C. Gainey) leads to chaos where Ruth steals money for her own drug use as she's caught by Norm. Diane decides to take Ruth in for protection where she reveals herself to be spy for a pro-choice group that she leads with her lesbian-lover Rachel (Kelly Preston). With Norm and Gail learning about Diane, a national debate happens as Norm calls in the entire Baby Savers group as Ruth is caught in the middle with Diane calling for Harlan for help as they learn Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hendren) will make a counterattack towards the Baby Savers. With the Baby Savers wanting to give Ruth money to keep her baby, Harlan makes the same offer to give Ruth a choice for her own. While the Baby Savers' national leader Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) arrives to help with the protest in front of Diane's farm. Ruth becomes unsure of the world she's in as well as her future as the abortion debate intensifies.
While films about political issues tend to tread into treacherous waters, what Alexander Payne does is find humor in these issues. While he is known as a liberal, Payne decides to go into neither side and make fun of both sides. Where he and co-writer Jim Taylor decide to paint the Baby Savers as a bunch of hypocritical, bland folks with a leader who likes to be massaged by his adopted son. The pro-choice advocates are seen as a bunch of kooky hippies. The genius of the film is in the screenplay and Payne's solid direction where both sides do have their points but the story is really about one woman and her own decision. The film does have an ending that will upset many not because of her choice but its unconventional approach, especially the fact that she's a very self-destructive, unemployed, and somewhat idiotic woman who doesn't know what to do. It's a satire film that doesn't try to play it safe and the result shows the brilliance of commentary that Payne and Taylor have in their subject matters.
If Payne and Taylor's script is well-written, so does Payne’s directing style and location choices where he chooses a rural, American landscape of his home state of Nebraska along with parts of Iowa. With cinematographer James Glennon, Payne goes for a somewhat gray, bleak outlook of Middle American culture with its small towns, poor houses in the ghetto to the more clean suburban outlook thanks to Glennon's grayish cinematography and the detailed production design of longtime Payne cohort Jane Ann Stewart. The film also includes some masterful and stylized editing from longtime editor Kevin Tent who utilizes a smart, playful approach to his editing that makes the film leisurely placed. Then there's the plaintive score of Rolfe Kent who brings in some fantastic orchestral pieces that plays to Tent's editing paces with a touch of jazz rhythms is familiar with many of Payne's films.
Part of the genius of Citizen Ruth is in its casting and all of the film's supporting cast plays their part with great hilarity and satire. While small performances from David Graff, Alicia Witt, Jeremy Sczepaniak, Kenneth Mars, Joan Hennecke, and Sebastian Anzaldo III are memorable, one of the funniest cameos comes from Dern's real-life mom and actress Diane Ladd in a hilarious dialogue confrontation between her and her daughter. Tippi Hendren is excellent in her brief performance as pro-choice leader Jessica Weiss while Burt Reynolds is extremely hilarious as the Baby Savers leader with his bad wig and conservative views that are out there, especially in a scene where he's topless.
Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place also bring humor to their ultra-conservative caricatures while Place does write some of the film's original songs with Payne & Taylor that are downright funny and spiritual. Kelly Preston is also funny as Kurtz's lesbian lover with a kooky affinity for hippie songs about the moon. M.C. Gainey also shines as sleazy Harlan with his radical views on politics while Swoozie Kurtz pulls double duty as Diane with her high-pitch voice as the conservative Diane with the more stern, funny tone of the ultra-liberal Diane.
Laura Dern is the real stare of the film with her complex and hilarious performance as the film's title character. Dern doesn't make her character totally likeable despite her self-destructive behavior but her comedic antics are just so wonderful to watch. Dern makes her character a bit of an idiot but not a total idiot, especially when she thinks about her plans for her money while we sympathize with her about her knowledge as being the center of a huge political debate. Dern's performance is truly the spark that drives the film.
Citizen Ruth is one of the reasons why Alexander Payne is considered to be one of American cinema's leading voice, because of his subject matters and approach to satire. The acclaim of Citizen Ruth would lead him to direct the high school election satire of Election in 1999 that somewhat parallels are own electoral ideals and scandals. Payne's films are very American for their subject matters whether it's the satire of Citizen Ruth and Election, the discussion of ageism and value of life in About Schmidt, to his recent, Oscar-award winning view of a man's depression and affinity for wine in Sideways. It's clear that after four films, Payne is likely to become the one true American director that sees things in a realistic and funny way. Another thing that makes Payne's film so unique is that each of the central protagonists are loveable, flawed losers we can root for.
Citizen Ruth isn't a bad place to start when it comes to the works of Alexander Payne though Election seems like the better introduction. Fans of Payne will find this as a great debut though for those serious about the issue of abortion will find this film to be very offensive. With a great cast led by Laura Dern, Citizen Ruth is a winner for its witty satire and realistic views on politics as it stands as a fine debut for Alexander Payne and company.
Alexander Payne Films: Election - About Schmidt - Sideways - Paris Je T'aime-14e Arrondissment - The Descendants - Nebraska - (Downsizing) - The Holdovers - (Tracy Flick Can't Win) - The Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne
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