A first feature for director Payne, "Citizen Ruth" stabs straight into the heart of America; it's satire that focuses on the issue of abortion but really cuts against all fanaticism. Ruth Stoops (Dern), a hopeless drifter arrested for the 16th time for "huffing" (sniffing spray paint), is found to be pregnant, charged with endangering a fetus, and sentenced to jail until she gets rid of her "problem [the pregnancy]." The satire begins as fanatical fringe groups on both sides of the "choice issue" battle each other, with shrewd but brain-damaged Ruth at the center. The highly-talented, Oscar-level performance from Dern makes us believe Ruth Stoops can exist - a funny, conniving, pathetic, smart, yet senseless person, who dives into substance in scenes strikingly handled, both through Dern's tremendous acting and the terrific camera work. Meanwhile, vying for Ruth's fetus, and maybe her soul, fanatical fringes are shown in a deserved light. Putting Ruth at the center takes the edge off the extremists, showing how meaningless their causes are. If Ruth, the focus of their stance, doesn't care, how can they? When Ruth walks out of the picture while both sides continue to battle, it doesn't matter: The object of the cause is simply the cause. Fanaticism turns well-intentioned people into raving lunatics who lose sight of the cause in the campaign to 'win.'
"Citizen Ruth" is an amusing, thoughtful satire, a comedy highlighted by beautifully odd accents. When Ruth is first brought into the home of the baby savers, she relaxes in a bath and entertains herself by enjoying alternating eye views of her toe in the bathtub faucet, a scene that's not only funny, but defines just how much of Ruth's brain has been destroyed by her chemical inhalations. Dern gives one of her best performances as the painfully clueless, totally irresponsible Stoops. The most amazing thing about her work is that you'll be rooting for her by the end of the film, as she rejects the pro-lifers' and pro-choicers' attempts to use her to 'send their messages.'
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kutwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedrin, and
Abortion, huffing, fanatacism, Laura Dern
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