Nurse Betty


          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.


                          Rating:                 B+
                          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.