1996, Movies

Citizen Ruth (1996, Alexander Payne)

This is a very funny movie about a pregnant drug addict and the war to get her to keep the baby or get an abortion. It’s dated a bit in terms of how we depict addiction but, otherwise, it feels like it is (sadly) still relevant and is definitely worth your time.

First, I want to get something out of the way: our awareness and understanding of drug addiction has greatly increased in the last 2 decades. And Dern’s performance is not one that holds up particularly well. I don’t blame her exactly, but it hasn’t aged well. She plays Ruth as a spoiled brat who has not grown up. This is a common view of addict and it is often, if not always, wrong. If this movie was made now, the characterization should be (would be?) different. Dern is fine as an adult child, but I don’t recognize an addict. (Trust me, I know.)

But this is not a fatal flaw, like it might be in a drama about addiction. And that’s because this movie is very funny. Moreover, it’s not quite equal opportunity, but it definitely has some barbs for the pro choice side in addition to being absolutely ruthless as it attacks the pro life side. (Make no mistake: this movie has taken a side. But, like South Park, it is willing to attack the side it leans towards too.) It’s a pretty classic American satire, in that sense, skewering both sides and taking the side of the unfortunate character at the centre of the story.

Payne would get better as both a writer and a director. It’s somewhat apparent the film is a directorial debut – some of those transitions are a little rough! – and it feels a little heavy-handed with how unbelievably hypocritical the pro lifers are. But, Payne’s talent is still on full display. And I can imagine watching this in 1996 and getting very excited about his potential.

I like my satires when they are barbed and funny, as this is. And I’m willing to forgive a lot when I’m laughing – in this case the fairly unfair portraits of the ground-level pro lifers and Dern’s poor choice to portray Ruth as a child. I’d much rather watch a very funny satire with flaws than a technically well-executed satire with not enough laughs. So I liked this a lot.


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