This is the debut of indie filmmaker Alexander Payne. It’s a very sharp satire of numerous forms of excessiveness. At the center of it all is Ruth, a young woman who’s all about excess. Whenever she can, she drinks too much and sniffs glue or whatever strong chemical she finds. She obviously doesn’t have a job or a place to go, so she sleeps in dumpsters or in the crummy apartments of losers who just want to abuse of her. And now, for the umpteenth time, she’s been arrested. The doctors that examine her find out she’s pregnant, and the judge advises her to get an abortion. After all, she’s had four kids already, and the law took all of them away from her : why would she be fit to raise this guy? Ruth’s like, okay, an abortion it is… until she meets Gail Stoney and her friends in jail. As soon as they learn about her case, they bail her out and rake her home with them. It turns out that they’re Christian fanatics who feel it is their duty to save Ruth from the Devil. And it doesn’t hurt that this would help their cause : they’re members of the Baby Savers, an anti-abortion group who are literally at war with the pro-choice groups.
The movie is not about whether abortion is a good thing or not. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor are pointing out the hypocrisy and the excess on all sides. The film isn’t anti-Christian, of course not. It’s just against people who take it too far, who forget that Catholicism is supposed to be about helping others, but not necessarily losing all perspective and seeing evil in everything. Payne shows how these guys don’t even really care about saving fetuses and their mothers all that much. They’re mostly obsessed with their cause; for them, preventing Ruth from getting an abortion is just a way to gain ground. But the movie doesn’t stop there : it fairly also attacks the pro-choice believers, as Ruth eventually switches sides when she’s almost kidnapped by Diane, a feminist lesbian Lilith activist who gets help from her pseudo-poet girlfriend and from a crew of Vietnam vets who are just happy to have something to fight for. They all say they’re for personal freedom, but it’s just as long as you’re doing what they want!
Basically, Citizen Ruth is about how some people trap themselves in over-passionate causes and forget about the rest. There isn’t anything wrong with religion or politics, unless you go nuts about it and lose the common sense of seeing that nothing is black or white : it’s all gray areas. The strength of Payne’s satire is precisely the way it presents us characters who aren’t all good or all bad. They probably all have good intentions, but they’re not perfect. Everyone has flaws : Gail (Mary Kay Place) doesn’t understand her daughter, her husband Norm (played by Kurtwood Smith, the badass father in That 70s Show) acts as a voyeur around Ruth, the moral leader of the Baby Savers (played surprisingly by Burt Reynolds, who seems to have abandoned big dumb macho flicks for meatier indies ) seems to have a thing for little boys, Diane (Swoozie Kurtz) and her lover Rachel (Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston) are lunatics that sing to the Moon… Next to all these people, Ruth doesn’t look this bad ! She’s convincingly and colorfully played by Laura Dern, who you’ve seen in such different films as Wild at Heart and Jurassic Park. Ruth is a bit pathetic, sniffing patio sealant and relying on easy-wealth tapes, but she’s still the one who sees the nonsense in all the debate and protest that builds up around her ! Citizen Ruth is a smart, amusing film, even though it wears a little thin near the end. It’s certainly not as fun and thought-provoking as Alexander Payne’s follow-up, Election, but it’s still an original, worthy first effort.