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Citizen Ruth (1996) Is it really possible to make a comedy about abortion? Alexander Payne, who cowrote and directed this mischievous bit of sociological screwball, has brought it… Laura Dern Mary Kay Place Tippi Hedren Swoosie Kurtz Kelly Preston Burt Reynolds
Movie Review

Citizen Ruth (1996)

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EW's GRADE
B+

Details With: Laura Dern and Mary Kay Place

Is it really possible to make a comedy about abortion? Alexander Payne, who cowrote and directed this mischievous bit of sociological screwball, has brought it off. And he has done it by creating a heroine so degraded, so memorably vile, that she throws us off our usual track of empathy. In Omaha, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a dirty gutter wretch, hustles for a few dollars so she can get high on aerosol fumes; that's her entire life. Arrested for vagrancy, and pregnant for the fifth time, this skanky addict-loser is taken in by Norman and Gail Stoney (Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place), beaming local leaders of a Christian anti-abortion organization called the Baby Savers. At first, the film looks like a cheap shot at pro-life piety. But when Ruth is stolen by a pair of lesbian pro-choice activists, the satirical framework clicks into place. Citizen Ruth scabrously sends up a war in which both sides have become so consumed by righteous zealotry that they've lost touch with the individual women they're ostensibly out to save. The movie is a little too aware of its own outrageousness, but the performances are pinpoint perfect: Mary Kay Place, hatefully sunny; Swoosie Kurtz, the cut-and-dried soul of leftist smugness; and Burt Reynolds, in top oily form as the Baby Savers' evangelical leader. And Dern is a revelation: Desperate, kooky, as devious as a pack rat, her Ruth grows likable, and even heroic, by remaining too pure a scoundrel to be taken in by the phonies around her.

Originally posted Jan 10, 1997 Published in issue #361 Jan 10, 1997 Order article reprints