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
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
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