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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 01/09/1997, B: Alicia Potter,

Fetal positions

Citizen Ruth is a smart, irreverent satire

by Alicia Potter

Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M. C. Gainey, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, Kathleen Noone, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren. A Miramax Films release. At the Kendall Square.

Are fetal rights funny? Director Alexander Payne thinks so, and in his biting and provocative first feature, Citizen Ruth, he pulls off the ultimate in cinematic oxymorons: an abortion comedy. Nearly 25 years after Roe v. Wade, the chasmal issue is finally grounds for chuckling, thanks to Payne's wry satire about a pregnant young drifter who gains unwanted fame as the controversial It Girl of the abortion fray. Refreshingly original in its social commentary, Citizen Ruth takes neither prisoners nor sides but devotes itself to skewering the red-hot self-righteousness of fanaticism.

We first meet Ruth Stoops (played brilliantly by Laura Dern as a head-on collision of street-smart grit and dim naïveté) in a familiar routine. She's flat on her back, staring bolt ahead, as a grunting cretin bangs away at her. Trashy to the core, Ruth does for "huffing" what the Trainspotting lads did for heroin. A vapor addict, she eyes model glue with glazed longing and salivates like a Pavlovian dog at the sound of a spray-paint can being shaken. Two cops discover her passed out, a gray beard of sealant covering her scabby face. "She looks like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz," one cop cracks, foreshadowing the bizarre journey for the drugged-out Dorothy.

In jail on her 16th vapor-inhalation arrest, Ruth learns that she is pregnant with her fifth child and is facing a felony for fetal endangerment. The disgusted judge offers to reduce her charges if she agrees "to take care of her problem." In her cell, Ruth meets holier-than-thou housewives Gail (Mary Kay Place) and Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who've just raided the local abortion clinic. They persuade Gail's husband, Norm (Kurtwood Smith), to spring for Ruth's bail and then offer her a place in their suburban oasis until her delivery. Ruth, however, isn't exactly planning on having the baby.

It's not long before the media maelstrom swirls around her case. Both pro-life and pro-choice activists circle, but Ruth's cuss-laced tantrum makes it clear that she won't be anyone's poster girl. All she wants is her old life of spray-paint stupors and sex on stained mattresses. That is, of course, until a manipulative bidding war erupts over the future of her fetus.

Payne brazenly offers us little to love about Ruth. An anti-heroine whose existence is one big screeching "Fuck you!", she lurches from faction to faction as the stakes climb. When outside her window hundreds of right-to-lifers sing "Don't Give Up on Baby Tanya" to the chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Ruth sits in a hot-pink bra, caking on make-up and guzzling purloined Courvoisier.

Nonetheless, Dern's electrifying performance validates Ruth's plucky struggle to hear her own voice above the commotion. Dern's raw-boned frame embodies a hustler's scrappiness, and her expressive face freezes Ruth's humorously uncensored reactions to the freak show before her, from awestruck disbelief to sneering reproach. The other characters can veer toward broad caricatures -- a reflection of the film's chief problem, its glee over cheap shots. Payne seems to think stereotypes are okay as long as they're distributed evenhandedly. But Dern infuses a survivalist's spirit into Ruth that grounds her careering self-destructiveness in life-affirming reality. Her bull-headed resistance to reform broaches a tough question: just what does freedom of choice mean for those women whose abilities to choose can't always be trusted?

Payne does not cork this query with a pat answer, any more than he sidles up to the pro-choice or the pro-life camp. Instead, the sardonic film excoriates both sides with one broad swipe of black humor, pitting the hypocritical, Scripture-spouting right against the moon-serenading, feminist-lesbian left. Like the sublimely caustic To Die For, Citizen Ruth slings its folly hardest at those with a knack for PR and an ear for sound bites. The biggest offenders are a gloriously toupee'd Burt Reynolds as the baby savers' pampered pooh-bah and a mediagenic Tippi Hedren as a white Faye Wattleton.

Gym bag slung over her shoulder, fist punching the air, the irrepressible Ruth is not easily forgotten. This brash comedy not only makes us laugh at the previously sacrosanct politics of abortion but also reminds us of the individuals so often flattened by fanaticism's juggernaut. An irreverent, gutsy debut, Citizen Ruth fulfills the unforgiving maxim of smart satire: offend everyone and spare no one.