On Sniping and Sex

Ask Dr. Ruth Is Less Fascinating Than Its Subject


Dr. Ruth was a sniper in an underground military operation. That’s a real thing. The 4’7” sex therapist whose whole shtick is that she’s an adorable grandma who doesn’t bat an eye when she graphically discusses doing-the-dirty had parts of her feet blown off in armed combat. Of course, this was years after she grew up Jewish in Nazi Germany, where her entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust. If I remember correctly, the feet thing actually happened a little bit before she had to survive as a single mom fresh off the boat in America while teaching herself English. Yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where Dr. Ruth’s DGAF attitude comes from.

However, maybe it takes a slightly better documentary than Ask Dr. Ruth, a film that isn’t quite as good as its subject matter. The big idea of Ask Dr. Ruth is that the famous sex therapist is hard to pin down. Director Ryan White never quite figures out how. The best parts are the opening 20 minutes, when it seems like a doc about the type of “working celebrity” you don’t hear much about. We tend to assume everyone famous dives headfirst into a swimming pool full of gold coins; we forget the B- and C-listers who actually have to celeb for a living. Dr. Ruth isn’t a superstar anymore, but she still books hundreds of shockingly hip and relevant media events every year. Famous as she is, she still can’t afford to retire.

From there, Ask Dr. Ruth shows us a collection of excellent standalone segments that never quite jive. There’s some discussion surrounding the mystery of why Dr. Ruth rejects the label “feminist,” even though she was a feminist icon in the 1980s. That doesn’t have much to do with a segment about how Dr. Ruth’s brand has evolved from shock jock to the precise opposite. Interestingly enough, she’s experienced a resurgence in popularity among millennials who are refreshed by her dispassionate, straightforward description of graphic sex acts that outraged older generations. Fascinating stuff to be sure, but there’s no real connection to the other fascinating segment, in which Dr. Ruth confronts frustrations about her personal politics or seeming lack thereof.

Think of a potentially great documentary portrait about Dr. Ruth as a New Yorker article. Now, picture this documentary as a Buzzfeed listicle. You get the idea. All the same facts, yes, but it’s all about delivery. Disjointed as it is, Ask Dr. Ruth works better than it should because Dr. Ruth is as charming as charming gets. The first scene is her blushing because she thinks it’s cool that someone as famous as the Amazon Alexa device knows her name. Totes adorbs.

Ask Dr. Ruth also suffers from a problem that runs deep in documentary portraits: it sometimes feels like a commercial for its subject. That was my huge problem with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, last year’s Mr. Rogers documentary that everyone but me seems to love. This film gets a pass because Dr. Ruth is more interesting than Mr. Rogers. Ask Dr. Ruth is a perfectly fine doc, but her story is so fascinating it deserved a film that knew how to tell it.

Grade = B


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