Published December 1, 1996
Citizen Ruth by Alexander Payne is not so good a movie as it ought to be, given its materials and the good idea of its conception (you should pardon the term). Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is a feckless dopehead living on the margins of lower middle class Omaha. The film begins with a scene of joyless sex in a flop house as “All the Way” booms on the soundtrack. Ruth is then kicked out by her latest boyfriend and, in revenge, trashes his already pretty awful piece of junk of a car. She visits her brother who, she says, is the only family she has left in the world—the only place she has to go. At first he refuses to have anything to do with her but finally, reluctantly, he gives her $15 to go away. Before she does she steals a peak in the window at two children that may be hers. She then goes and spends the money on a can of spray paint so that she can get high on the fumes. “Huffing,” it seems to be called. After she passes out, two cops, who know her well, come along and arrest her. When it emerges that she is pregnant a judge threatens to charge her with endangering the life of her fetus—unless she gets an abortion. It is at this point that she becomes the center of the local abortion wars.
First, a family of Christian “Babysavers” pays her bail and takes her home with them as their guest. Norm (Kurtwood Smith) is a hardware store clerk and his wife Gail (Mary Kay Place) is always talking about their little “miracle”—their son, Matthew (Sebastian Anzaldo III). Meanwhile they are oblivious to the wild life being lived by their older daughter, Cheryl (Alicia Witt). There is a hint of improper interest in Ruth by Norm, but nothing is done with it. The tacky kind of ostentatious Christianity of Norm and Gail and their babysaving comrades is not really comic enough, if it is supposed to be comic. They are too decent, if rather unattractive. A supposedly comic turn by Kenneth Mars as a pro-life doctor also does not strike me as thigh slapping stuff. He and the other babysavers engage in some heavy duty manipulation to try to make Ruth keep her baby.
But Ruth sneaks out and gets high again, and when she is caught sniffing Matthew’s model airplane glue and hits him, Gail flies into a rage and banishes her from the house. This is at an abortion clinic where the family is demonstrating, and one of the other baby savers, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) offers to take Ruth home with her. “There is a war on, and I guess you could say I’m a spy,” she tells Ruth. Turns out that she’s really a pro-choicer who lives with a lesbian girlfriend, Rachel (Kelly Preston), in a big house in the country. Now the brainwashing begins from the other side. The choicers want her to have the abortion, but no more than the pro-life side do they seem interested in Ruth herself.
The prolifers raise $15,000 to offer Ruth to have the baby. She is ready to take it, but the prochoicers’ security man, a biker called Harlan (M.C. Gainey) offers her $15,000 not to have it. Ruth doesn’t care, she just wants the money. Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren put in cameos as national leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice sides. The offer of the pro-lifers is raised, but Ruth suffers a miscarriage. Wisely, she decides to keep this quiet and goes along to the abortion clinic, where she is given the $15,000, then jumps out the window and makes her getaway. I think we’re supposed to think that Ruth has made monkeys out of the idealists on both sides, but I can’t see it myself. Nor, I suppose, can anyone who believes that the right to life of the innocent child inside her must be as unaffected by what its mother does as by the antics of those on either side who may have their own agenda in taking an interest in its existence.