Film Scouts Reviews

"Citizen Ruth"

by Karen Jaehne

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It started out as a black comedy about the abortion wars. Then it was taken over by the Great God of Movies, Publicity. Suddenly, in a 180-degree turn away from the controversy that its distributor Miramax would have once embraced, "Citizen Ruth" was dubbed a "pro-laugh" comedy.

Pro-laugh? As in chortle and chuckle? Or as a pun on "pro-life"? "Pro-lifers" - those people who throw themselves in front of cars driving into abortion clinics? Or who fish miscarried fetuses out of hospital dumpsters and brandish them as murder victims? How many ha-ha's can you squeeze from the subject?

Granted: Laura Dern delivers an astonishing performance as an actress who immerses her ego and her vanity in the character of an ugly addict without a shred of self-respect. Dern inhabits the role of Ruth so completely and so hopelessly that, at some point (about the time it becomes a "Love Boat" type vehicle for Burt Reynolds, et al), you realize that Dern and Citizen Ruth deserve a better story, something with vitality and possibility.

The essential problem with "Citizen Ruth" is its grim-not-dead-pan realism and serious recapitulation of what's actually taking place in the abortion wars. The rock-bottom question of the movie goes like this: is a woman at the bottom of the social ladder with a past full of drugs and discarded children and a future in the revolving door of the criminal system able to make up her own mind about an accidental pregnancy? The pro-lifers say they can give her a sense of family values. The pro-choicers want to help her choose. The "pro-laughers" offer at best a nervous titter. At worst, they laugh *at* her.

Excuse me for insisting on politicizing this movie that Miramax and its makers assiduously defend as non-political. I think "Citizen Ruth" leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths, because there's nothing at stake. Ruth is already so far gone, there's no hope for her. The others are so ideologically hide-bound, there's no expectation of plot reversal or even character development. From the first scene, in which Ruth is lying on a dirty bed being humped by some thug who then tosses her out of the shack, it's a sad tale of homelessness, drug-addiction, irresponsibility, exploitation and intolerance.

Nobody, including the filmmakers - especially the filmmakers! - has anything at stake in Ruth or anybody else winning. The filmmakers can abandon any passion for their subject and claim the movie is only about "extremism" and not about abortion, because they are offering this up as a calling card for Hollywood, not because they want to engage you in a compelling story.

Which reminds me of an old adage from the feminist front: never trust a feminist with a hard-on. A writer-director named Alexander Payne is an automatic suspect in a film that is - sorry, guys! - about abortion. Not jobs in Detroit, although it has a down-and-out esthetic. Not medical care, although many characters could come from a disease-of-the-week movie. Not hypocrisy, because nobody's a hypocrite; they are all dedicated to their causes!

You can't dodge it: abortion. It's the courageous thing to face. It's probably even the best marketing scheme, because controversy never hurt Miramax.

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