Februrary 7, 2013

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Starring Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, and Kurtwood Smith

One Bad Mother

Comments:    Okay, now we're talking.  Citizen Ruth is without a doubt one of the twenty movies I was most excited to write about, and is easily one of the biggest undiscovered gems on this entire countdown.  Because there is almost NOBODY out there who has ever seen it before.  It is one of those really good movies that has just been sitting out there for nearly twenty years, just waiting to be discovered, and for a long time the only way you would ever even stumble across it was if you saw the cover of the DVD in a video store.

Well guess what?  Not too long ago video stores kind of went away.  And because of that there has been almost no chance for people to randomly stumble across an undiscovered gem like Citizen Ruth anymore.  The only way a movie like this can possibly find a fan base these days is when people like me write about it and pimp it out over the internet.

So that is exactly what I am doing.  Go find Citizen Ruth.  This is without a doubt one of those movies that pretty much every person on Earth should see at least once before they die.  

It is, uh, well it is that memorable.

Citizen Ruth is the story of a white trash paint huffer named Ruth Stoops.

Ruth is not what you would call a likable character.  She is not what you would call a positive character.  She is not what you would call an attractive character.  Heck, she is barely what you would even be able to call a functioning adult.  She basically exists solely to walk around the streets of Omaha, Nebraska and get drunk.  And huff paint.  And puke on cars and pass out in the middle of the street.  

Long story short, Ruth is kind of a mess.

Our hero

Our hero in her usual state, splayed and passed out against a wall

Ruth is played by Laura Dern and is, without a doubt, one of the bravest performances I have ever seen by an A level actress in a mainstream movie.  Because like I said, Ruth is one fucking ugly character.  She has NO redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Pretty much the entire movie she is either drunk, or high, or passed out on the ground, or puking.  I have never seen a movie where the director went out of his way to make his leading lady look this bad.  But that is exactly what Alexander Payne does with Laura Dern, and she just absolutely goes with it.  This is the kind of performance that should have won her some kind of an award.

By the way, what is particularly funny is to watch Citizen Ruth back to back with Jurassic Park.  Watch Laura Dern being all competent and smart and sweet in one movie, and then watch her play Drunky McDrunksington in the other.  It is quite an experience.  You never quite realize how tall and gangly Laura Dern really is until you see the many creative ways that Alexander Payne shows her passed out and splayed somewhere.

I love this picture.  Let's see Miss Meryl Streep play that role.

Okay so anyway, back to the movie.

Like I said, Ruth is pretty much the worst human being ever.  She is constantly being arrested for being drunk, or being high, or for being passed out on somebody's lawn.  She has no place to live.  She has no education.  She just sort of wanders around the streets of Omaha and gets by on whatever food she can scrounge out of the dumpster.

Oh, and then there is the worst part.

She is constantly getting herself pregnant because she is presumably trading her body for drugs.

Ruth being arrested yet again for being drunk and disorderly


Well this where the story of Ruth Stoops turns into a movie.  And it happens to be a very ballsy movie.

Ruth has been arrested for the umpteenth time, and she wanders into court, and the judge finds out that she is pregnant.  Again.  Like she always is.  And since he is tired of seeing her in his courtroom week after week after week, and since he is tired of seeing her give birth and the state always having to pay for the adoptions, he decides that this time he is going to make an example out of her.

He tells Ruth that instead of being charged for public intoxication, this time he is going to charge her with a felony.  This time he is going to charge her with endangerment of a fetus.  Basically because he wants her locked up forever and to never come back.

Ruth finding out that this time she is being charged with a felony

The judge tells Ruth that she has two options at this point.  She can either go to jail for a long time.  Or she can have an abortion.  It is up to her.

And that's when this movie goes in a direction you will not believe.

Because that is when the Baby Savers get involved, and they adopt Ruth as their cause

Yes, Citizen Ruth can only be described as "the abortion satire."  Yes, it is the abortion comedy.  And probably the only one that will ever be made.

The Baby Savers (aka the far Christian Right) hear about Ruth's story, and they are outraged that a judge would demand that a pregnant woman get an abortion.  So they come to Omaha and they bail her out of jail and they adopt her as their cause.

They let Ruth live in their homes, they put her story in the news, they turn her into a national media figure, and they try to pretty her up so that they can put her on TV.

The Baby Savers attempting to pretty her up

So that is the first half of the movie.  The Baby Savers bail Ruth out of jail, they attempt to turn her into a lightning rod that the pro-life movement can all rally around, and meanwhile Ruth has no idea who the fuck these people are or what they are trying to do.  All she cares about is that she is out of jail now and she can go find more spray paint that she can get high with.

Also, Ruth is not a particularly sympathetic national media figure

Well needless to say, the minute that Ruth is adopted as a cause by the far right, that is when the far left realizes what is going on.  So they spring into action and they attempt to sway Ruth over to their side.  Because two can play at the sympathetic national figure game.  The pro-choice zealots kidnap Ruth and try to convince her that what she wants most in life is to have this abortion.

Ruth in the safe hands of the moon worshippers

And anyway, that is the movie.  Ruth becomes a pawn in the age old struggle between pro-choice and pro-life.  And it gets very heated.  Pretty soon both the Baby Savers and the Pro Choice Zealots are calling for National Media Alerts, and they are flying in thousands of protesters and demonstrators and picketers, just so one side can beat the other side when it comes to the fate of Baby Tanya (which is what they have named Ruth's fetus).


Burt Reynolds and the Baby Savers protesting for the rights of Baby Tanya

More outrage!

As you can imagine, this is one of those movies that you just sort of have to see in order to believe.  It is unbelievably ballsy.  And it only could have been made by Alexander Payne.  It basically takes both sides of the abortion debate, and it shows them both as complete hypocrites.  All either side cares about is that Ruth chooses their side so they can win this round in the media.  In fact at one point the pro choice people tell Ruth that even though she has a choice in the matter, she can't choose to keep the baby because that would be the wrong choice.

And again, meanwhile all Ruth cares about is the fact that she is out of jail now and people are giving her money so she can go get fucked up.

Again, our hero

Like I said at the start of my review, Citizen Ruth is one of those movies that you need to see at least once in your life.  You might like it, you might not like it, but man it is one ballsy little movie.  Starring a ballsy actress, and made by a ballsy director, and about a subject that you really aren't supposed to make comedies about.  Yet Alexander Payne did it.  He did the exact same thing that he would later do in Election and About Schmidt, he took a drama that is really serious and actually discusses some very deep and important issues, and he somehow satirized it and made you laugh at it.

Again, nobody else could have made this movie but him.  This is Alexander Payne's first movie and what a ballsy debut it was.

You can't beat the president of the Baby Savers shirtless and being rubbed down by altar boys

Some say that Citizen Ruth is a movie that has something to offend everyone.  But I look at it the other way.  I look it as a movie that has something to amuse everyone.  I mean, if you have seen an Alexander Payne movie you know what to expect.  It is set in Nebraska.  Most of the people are unlikable.  The music is quirky and goofy and fun.  Pretty much everyone in the story is a hypocrite.   It isn't my favorite of the Alexander Payne Nebraska trio (About Schmidt is), but it is certainly right up there along with Election and About Schmidt.   You could basically watch all three movies in a row and call them a trilogy.  They are all the exact same type of movie.

And again, like I said about Election, calling this a "comedy" is really selling it short.  Alexander Payne doesn't make comedies.  He makes awesome movies that often happen to be funny.

I don't want to ruin the ending of this movie for you, but it has always been one of my favorite endings of any movie ever.  Alexander Payne is so good at writing endings.  Because basically Ruth has no story arc.  Watching Ruth Stoops in action is like watching an episode of Seinfeld.  At no point in this movie does she grow, or learn, or change, or even try to change.  There is no hugging, there is no learning, all she is a piece of street trash who just wants to get high and huff paint.  That is all she is and that is all she ever will be.  And it is funny watching everyone try to mold her to be a part of their cause, when she really doesn't even care.  At a certain point all Ruth cares about is which side will slip her the most cash under the table.  That is the only way she will decide which side of the abortion debate she is on.  

Ruth seeing on the news that the Baby Savers will pay her $15,000 cash to give birth to Baby Tanya

Like I said in my last review, Election was an awesome movie because it was dark, because it was cynical, and because it pulled no punches in making everyone in the story come off like a douche.

Well Citizen Ruth does the exact same thing.  It is the exact same type of movie.

At the end of the movie you actually find yourself rooting for a paint huffing, drunk, passed out in the street junkie who would probably stab you over a three dollar tube of model airplane glue.  That is our hero.  And you actually find yourself rooting for her!  Again, nobody else could have made this movie but Alexander Payne, and it is without question one of the top twenty movies that you need to watch at least once on this countdown.

You might love it, you might hate it.  But is a crime that more people out there aren't aware of it.

Oh yeah, and I have to post this picture one last time because I have always loved it.

The esteemed Dr. Ellie Sattler

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Citizen Ruth:

Payne's underappreciated gem - 3 October 2002
It's truly gratifying to see that Alexander Payne has really made a name for himself in the art of film direction, having made nothing less than two fantastic social satires. "Election" garnered him considerable praise as will "About Schmidt," but in my mind, "Citizen Ruth" is the best. It's not as funny as Election in the sense that there aren't the moments that make your jaw drop in terms of the delightfully vicious nature of the satire, but the script is just as thoughtful as it is funny, and Payne did a remarkable job satirizing what, by most accounts, is an "un-satirizable" subject. Laura Dern really deserved some kind of award (you know the academy would never have the stones to recognize a film such as this...) as her performance is both touching and hysterical. Some said the film started off great and then didn't really go anywhere, but I disagree. The final shot says it all with respect to the direction of the story, and it really amazes me that this film could be made without really taking a side on anything. Ultimately, I was blindsided by the film's astute message, which was not even about abortion itself, but the selfish nature of the two sides arguing it. Payne will undoubtably move on to make compelling films in the future that take advantage of higher budgets, etc., but "Citizen Ruth" deserves a place amongst the best first features in any genre.

Fantastic - 6 July 2006
There is something about Citizen Ruth that keeps me coming back to it. I must have seen it 30 times and haven't tired of it yet. It is genuine and the people are so amazingly real. It's almost as if some of my neighbours seem just like the characters in the film. That says a lot in my opinion. The Mid-west is a land that holds a special place in the American psyche. I can literally count on my hands the number of films that truly capture its spirit. Citizen Ruth is one of those films. From scenes in the hardware store to large rear wheel drive Fords, everything fits perfectly. This film captures a place called Omaha which for better or worse Hollywood largely ignores. It also treats a controversial topic like abortion in a thoughtful manner. Excellent film. Highly recommended.

Underrated Gem - 16 January 2005
In the wake of the huge success "Sideways" is garnering lately, everyone should look back at this incredible film from Alexander Payne, which shows off everything he and writing partner Jim Taylor are best at- the dark skewering of small-town America, rich with satire and heart. I had seen all of Payne's films except this one, and although I really loved all of them, this may be his most fully realized. This is probably because his targets are hit exactly dead-on, and the absurdity of the situations are in fact, achingly real. Laura Dern gives a wonderful and unflinching portrayal of Ruth, and the rest of the cast, especially Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, and in a small role, Burt Reynolds, are exceptional as the targets of Payne's satire. Payne fills his films with little details of small-town life, and here they add so much to the point of the story. Take for example the grace that Kurtwood Smith's character gives, which is barely heard because of the roaring plane overhead. It is these details that are the crux of a story like this. So as "Sideways" continues to claim many awards (and rightfully so), I urge you to check out this earlier film from Payne, and experience a brilliant little film, and one of the gutsiest movies you may ever see.

I ain't no f*cking telegram, bitch! - 21 March 2008
I have seen Laura Dern in a few movies, but none that really showed her ability as this one.

The was an outrageously funny abortion satire and she really shined as the huffer that gets pregnant and is the pawn of both sides in the fight over a fetus. Both sides - pro-choice and anti-abortion - were made fun of in this film. They were people that you would really not want to know.

Mary Kay Place is a "Baby Saver" that hasn't got a clue. Her daughter is sneaking out at night, and her "righteous" husband is just a letch. She takes in Ruth (Dern) and gets her to those so-called counseling centers so they can work her over. Swoosie Kurtz rescues her, but Ruth soon finds that the other side is just as bad. The druggie and unfit mother soon scams them all in a very satisfactory ending.

Dern plays a perfect white-trash Barbie that is out for herself. She really gives a great performance as she switches from booze to bathroom-cleaning fluid, and back to booze. Ruth is just out for Ruth and she manages to take care of herself. She sees money as a solution to all her problems, and Dern plays up her ignorance in a manner that is well worth watching.

Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren play the national leaders on both sides of the abortion war. It really doesn't matter which side you are one, but you will definitely be pro-Laura Dern after seeing this.

Watch this one more than once! - 20 May 2004
Occasionally you will see a movie that may take you some time to decide whether you enjoyed it. By the second time you see it, you're better able to fully appreciate the movie without becoming wrapped up in confusing or disturbing plot elements. "Citizen Ruth" is one of the best examples of this phenomenon I have ever seen. If you've seen it before, give it another chance. If you have not, give yourself some time to reflect after watching it. You will not be disappointed.

"Citizen Ruth" is the story of a woman, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern could not have been a better choice for this role), who has spent her difficult life making a lot of bad choices. She is a quick-tempered, irresponsible but naive junkie, who you can't help but root for. When she finds herself pregnant yet again, with no intention of giving up the model airplane glue and spray paint she regularly huffs, the judge makes it clear that with all of her previous run-ins with the legal system, Ruth had better "take care of the problem" or face serious charges.

When the local pro-life group, the Babysavers (Kurtwood Smith was another excellent choice to play the leader of this group) catches wind of the judge's comments, they set out to save Ruth and her unborn child. This, of course, turns out in a hilariously disastrous way, when pro-choice gets involved to even up the playing field. Ruth's naivete makes her easy for both sides to manipulate, and neither pro-life nor pro-choice winds up looking very good.

The ending to this movie is not, in my opinion, as predictable as it seems, and it really gives you something to think about - what is "life" and how much (both in material and ethereal terms) is it worth, particularly when it's placed in the hands of somebody who is in such poor control of her or his own? Is it ethical to take advantage of somebody's lack of knowledge for your own gain, or is it even okay to try to change somebody's mind? Is Ruth Stoops a bad person, or just a misunderstood and desperate woman? And what about her final choice?

This movie is worth a second look, and at a $3 rental fee, what do you have to lose?

Shades of "Election", "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" (even of Terri Schiavo) - 10 July 2007
In what has got to be one of Laura Dern's most interesting roles, she plays indigent drug addict Ruth Stoops, ordered to have an abortion at the risk of damaging her unborn fetus. That's when she gets taken in by a fundamentalist Christian, right-to-life family who starts using her as a rallying call. But abortion rights activists also see Ruth as a rallying call.

Like "Thank You for Smoking", "Citizen Ruth" shows the hypocrisy of both sides in a controversial topic, as they both want to use an individual for their own ends. This movie sort of predicted what would happen to Terri Schiavo almost ten years in advance. Moreover, director Alexander Payne shows the twisted sensibility that he would later bring to "Election", "About Schmidt" and "Sideways". You gotta agree with what Ruth does at the end. Definitely one that I recommend.

Good - 22 November 1999
While listening to the commentary for Election on DVD, Alexander Payne noted things that are also on Citizen Ruth. With no hesitation, I went out and rented Citizen Ruth and I'm glad I did. While not as good as Election, Citizen Ruth is still a good film about the insanity of the abortion debate. I couldn't believe how far it got outta hand for a drug using, screwed up party animal. Both sides of the spectrum went out of control trying to decide for Ruth what's best for her. And believe other reviews, when they say the ending is rather sad. Payne is to good of a director to let the movie trail away like that. While waiting in line for the next Star Wars movie, I'll also wait in line for the next movie from Alexander Payne, especially after movies like this and Election.

* My favorite trivia about Citizen Ruth:

* The "ASK ME" pin worn by Kurtwood Smith in the hardware store shows up again in Alexander Payne's following film, Election. It also shows up on Dermot Mulroney in Alexander Payne's third film, About Schmidt.

* In the text of a newspaper article in the film Election, you can find the following message: "If you've paused the film in order to read this entire article, your time would be better spent renting Citizen Ruth from your local video store. Do you know how hard it is to write these fake few stories for newspaper movie props? I've got better things to do."

* My favorite scene in Citizen Ruth:

I gotta go with the ending.  That was just perfect.  I wish I could spoil it for you but I won't.

Oh yeah, and there is one scene right towards the end of the movie where Ruth grabs a megaphone and she screams something at her mother.  And everyone hears it on the news and gasps.  That is a personal favorite too.  God bless Ruth Stoops and her trashiness.

Citizen Ruth at the IMDB

Citizen Ruth at Wikipedia

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