I'm not sure why it took me so long to see Citizen Ruth. I love the films of Alexander Payne. So much that I can't even pick a favorite between Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. So with the very imminent release of Payne's new film, The Descendants (which I will surely be reviewing this weekend), I thought I would go back to the beginning and finally watch his first film.
Citizen Ruth stars Laura Dern as a paint-huffing mess of a human being who, after being taken in from her latest binge by the authorities, finds out she is pregnant. This is nothing new to her. It will be her fifth child that society deems (correctly so) her unfit for. The judge gives her a choice. She either must terminate the pregnancy, or go to prison for placing her unborn child in danger through her excesses.
While being held in jail, Ruth meets a group of Pro-Life protesters who, after hearing her situation, decide to pay her bail and take her in, with the intention of using her as a figurehead for their cause. Soon enough, the Pro-Choicers get their mitts on her too, and Ruth finds herself caught in the middle of an escalating battle between the two.
The satire in Citizen Ruth is sharp and Payne does a great job of walking a fine line. He does this by making the activist groups on both sides of the issue both pretty equally corrupt and self-centered. They are both willing to do anything to get Ruth's endorsement, even though she really doesn't care about what either side thinks.
Laura Dern's portrayal of Ruth is excellent. She and Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) have created a perfect foil for these two groups. Even though she is a complete wreck, Ruth is also innocent in her way; not particularly smart, not interested in the greater issue at hand. Her main concern is getting her hands on some cash so she can score again and get high. Despite all this, Payne shows a great deal of empathy for Ruth and her plight. The situation she is pressured into forces her to rethink her priorities and consider maybe getting herself together.
The supporting cast surrounding Dern is a good deal of fun to watch as well. Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place are hilarious as the Pro-Lifers who take her in. I especially liked M.C. Gainey as one of the Pro-Choicers. Burt Reynolds has a small part, in the midst of his post-Boogie-Nights mid-nineties career revival.
Citizen Ruth was a strong first film, but it is still a first film. As much as I enjoyed it, I think Alexander Payne was still working out his trademark style and tone. The subject matter is bold, and was surely a great way to get his name out there, but I felt the satire in his second film (Election) was a lot funnier, if not quite as edgy, and his (and our) empathy for his often hopeless characters has only grown in his later films. Still, Citizen Ruth is totally worth checking out if you haven't yet, especially if you're a fan of Payne's other work.