How one responds to comedy is individualistic and idiosyncratic;
what one may find as hysterical can leave others stone-faced. Even more
subjective is the sub-genre of "black comedy"; more than another other
form of humor, it is not geared for the "general" but rather the specific.
The rather small but potent output of writer-director Neil LaBute is a
particular example. His first two films, In the Company of Men and
Your Friends and Neighbors, were small, intimate character studies
left many audience members exasperated and/or infuriated, and
convinced LaBute was a raging misogynist. Others, though, recognized
them for what they were, brilliant satires on the relationships between
men and women in late 20th-century America. (Even in his theatrical
work like bash, latter day plays, which was filmed by Showtime, LaBute
applies his laser-like intelligence, biting wit, and prodigious talent
for crafting three-dimensional characters.) His creations often act in
horrendously, even amorally, but they remain fascinating. They are also
a gift to the actors who get to portray full-bodied personalities instead
of the standard-issue generic figures found in many of the average
studio fare. Since his work defies categorization, he cannot be pigeonholed,
which, in turn, is what makes his work fresh and exciting.
Undoubtedly, LaBute could have continued in that same vein,
producing scorching, intimate portraits of morally questionable people.
Instead, for the first time in his career, he directed a screenplay that
he did not write -- the unclassifiable Nurse Betty, which mixes genres
as disparate as romance, the road movie, and action crime melodramas
with soap operas. The result is one of the year's most enjoyable films
so far. Because one cannot sum up Nurse Betty in a pithy one-sentence
log line, the film may be a hard sell. The trailer doesn't quite capture
the unique flavor of this delightful and surprising motion picture.
The complicated plot centers on Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger),
a Kansas waitress with a cheating, used-car salesman husband, who
finds escape from her dreary life by watching the daytime serial
A Reason to Love and fantasizing about the hero Dr. David Ravell.
One evening, Betty's ne'er-do-well husband Del (Aaron Eckhart) brings
home some shady business associates Charlie and Wesley (Morgan
Freeman and Chris Rock). Unaware that Betty is in the house, the two
strangers kill Del which Betty witnesses, causing her to enter a fugue
state in which she is convinced she is Dr. Ravell's long-lost girlfriend.
She sets out for California with Charlie and Wesley in pursuit. Even
that bare-bones outline, which effectively describes only the first
twenty minutes or so cannot capture the flavor and essence of the
witty screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg (from a
story by Richards). Obviously, the film is partly inspired by
The Wizard of Oz wherein another spunky woman from Kansas went
on a journey, but Nurse Betty is more than just a takeoff on that
classic. It is also about the American obsession with celebrity, the
inability to separate fiction from reality (especially via watching
television), but most of it, it deals with finding a path to self-fulfillment.
As LaBute has said in interviews, "By going a little wacky, [Betty]
actually ends up getting to that thing that her dreams are made of."
Top-billed Morgan Freeman brings his usual grace and dignity to
the role of an about-to-retire hit man on one last job. As Charlie
pursues Betty across the country to L.A., he builds a fantasy portrait
of her just as Betty has created her ideal man out of a TV character.
In his mind, she is an ideal that no real person can match and when
their paths ultimately cross, they share a poignant moment of realization.
As Charlie’s sidekick Wesley, Chris Rock delivers a fine performance. He
is both wisecrackingly funny but also chillingly scary when necessary.
No one can project that admixture of the smarmy and charming as well
as Greg Kinnear but just when the audience begins to feel they might
have seen his shtick before, his character takes an unexpected turn.
The large supporting cast includes numerous standouts: Eckhart as
Betty's sleazy husband; Pruitt Taylor Vince as a lawman and Crispin Glover
s a newspaper reporter both from Betty's hometown; Kathleen Wilhoite
as Betty's best friend; Harriet Sansom Harris as an Arizona bar owner;
Elizabeth Mitchell as a soap actress; and especially Allison Janney as
an acerbic TV producer.
The film, though, would not succeed if it weren't for the stellar
work of Renée Zellweger in the leading role. Although she has previously
demonstrated her unique and formidable talents in Jerry Maguire,
One True Thing and The Whole Wide World, she fully comes into her
own as a major star with Nurse Betty. By teaming Zellweger with
Tia Texada, LaBute contrasts the two actresses’ styles, playing off
the former's innate sweetness with the latter's vinegary delivery and
striking the perfect balance. But Zellweger also works beautifully with
each actor she encounters. Her fabulously nuanced, finely observed
characterization propels the action and anchors the film.
Be forewarned, the film’s tone deliberately encompasses dark comic
moments, some graphic violence and a slightly campy homage to the
highly theatrical style of acting on daytime television. The technical credits
are all above average, with special mention going to those scenes of the
soap opera within the movie (due in no small part to adviser Shelley Curtis,
who has worked as a producer on Days of Our Lives, General Hospital and
Port Charles). Overall, with its strong cast, fine writing and expert
direction, Nurse Betty is top notch.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language
and a scene of sexuality
Running time: 110 mins.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.