Citizen Ruth

on December 13, 1996 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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   One of the gutsiest American movies of the year, the hilarious "Citizen Ruth" is sure to raise hackles with its equally biting attacks on right-wing religious anti-abortionists and left-wing pro-choicers. The Ruth of the title ("Jurassic Park's" Laura Dern) is a glue-sniffing, alcohol-abusing woman who has just discovered she's pregnant--for the fifth time. She's facing jail for hazardous vapor inhalation and for endangering the health of her fetus, until an exasperated judge suggests that she can avoid that fate by having an abortion. That's when a right-to-life group learns of her plight and adopts her, only to discover that their opposition wants to "save" her as well.
   "Citizen Ruth" is not about the morality of abortion but about an America where the individual can be manipulated by both sides in pursuit of a "greater truth." But this individual is no saint, either. Ruth's main concern is to benefit from the imbroglio, preferably financially. Playing against her pristine looks, Dern is superb as the white-trash, grungy Ruth, who's usually not even aware of her surroundings. The rest of the cast--notably Mary Kay Place ("Manny & Lo") and Kurtwood Smith as evangelistic protestors, Swoosie Kurtz as a feminist firebrand and Burt Reynolds (atoning for "Striptease") as the smarmy leader of the anti-abortion forces--are excellent, too; they're broadly played characters but never caricatures.
   By tarring everyone with the same dark brush, writer/director Alexander Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor avoid simplicity and predictability. Just when you think you know where "Citizen Ruth" is going, it takes a different turn and its satirical sweep increases. By film's end, everything from capitalism to family values has been wittily assailed. At a time of timidity in the arts and politics, "Citizen Ruth" doesn't shy from controversy. It's subversive moviemaking. Starring Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz and Kurtwood Smith. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Produced by Cary Woods and Cathy Konrad. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated R for substance abuse, strong language and a sex scene. Running time: 102 min. Won the Montreal fest's best actress award. Opens 12/13 NY/LA/Omaha; expands 1/10 to top 10 markets
Tags: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, white trash, Burt Reynolds, abortion, politics, satire, capitalism, family values, pregnancy, alcoholic
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