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Nurse Betty

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Nurse Betty

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Renee Zellweger
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: September 2000
Genre: Comedy

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Some people say that actor Ronald Reagan couldn't tell the difference between real life and the movies when he was in the Oval Office, so that when he said with a smile, "We bomb Russia in 5 minutes," maybe he wasn't joking. His administration seems to have revived the whole issue of the influence of movies on regular people, with the idea that a great many of us are susceptible to Reaganitis. We take what's on the screen for reality while at the same time we consider any aspect of real life that's not on the screen to be irrelevant. What an incredible theme for a movie or a TV drama, and indeed we have had no small number of filmed dramas taking off on that motif.

In Woody Allen's coldly clever comedy-fantasy "The Purple Rose of Cairo," a Depression-era movie fan's latest idol walks off the screen and into her life. In Gary Ross's "Pleasantville," a brother and sister are transported into their TV set right into a black-and-white sitcom from the 1950s. They infiltrate the stodgy fifties types with their more worldly sensibilities--just as some actors from a soap opera invade the banal life of Neil LaBute's eponymous Nurse Betty in a dark comedy that has absolutely everything going for it. I'm a fan of LaBute and went into the screening groaning that the brilliant satirist had not scripted the story instead of being at the helm, but I left stunned by the movie's perfect combination of crackerjack acting, clever writing, sharp cross- cutting of scenes, and a photographer's imagination that turns the picture increasingly more colorful as the principal character enriches her previously insipid life.

What could the judges at the last Cannes film festival have been thinking when they justifiably gave scripters John C. Richards and James Flamberg top honors but passed over the awesome performances of a top ensemble of thesps acting out the most memorable comedy of the year?

Though "Nurse Betty" is darkly comic, the film in no way embraces the bitter, biting, satiric touch of LaBute as a writer of overly-theatrical but mind-blowing parodies of human relationships like "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors." With LaBute in the director's chair, the film is opened up, situated not in a nameless, abstract locale but in specific areas of America, principally Kansas, Arizona, and L.A., each location acting as a character in itself to give added resonance to the scenes. While in Kansas, Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) is a coffee-shop waitress whose dreams do not allow her to be the sort that would slobber over customers and garner big tips to bring home to her abusive husband Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart). For her, real life is the TV screen that looks down upon the eatery, particularly when broadcasting a daily soap opera called "A Reason to Love," starring Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), a master surgeon whose wife had died during the previous year. Resisting the seductive charms of his latest beautiful date, Ravell looks at the moon and chants, "I know there's someone special out there for me." That's enough to make Betty reach out like "The Wizard of Oz"'s Dorothy beyond her home state of Kansas. When she witnesses the brutal scalping and murder of her thuggish husband by two hit men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), she goes into traumatic shock and fully believes that TV's Dr. David Ravell is a real person in a real hospital and not an actor named George McCord.

LaBute shifts to a road movie as Betty takes off in the very Buick that happens to have a stash of drugs in the trunk, making the hit men believe that she is a criminal who is in on the felonious doings of her late husband. As cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier captures some of the great natural beauty of the U.S., particularly the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Utah, and editors Joel Plotch and Steven Weisberg cross-cut furiously between Betty's adventures, those of the two gangsters hot on her heels, and the characters in the soap, we in the audience cannot help rooting for Betty's getaway. We instinctively want her to attain her dream, her desire to say with full honesty, "I don't think I'm in Kansas any more." It doesn't hurt that Betty is actually America's fondest girl-next-door, Renee Zellweger, who captivates whether the starry-eyed groupie in Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire" or the conflicted rebel in Boaz Yakin's "A Price Above Rubies." Ironically we also cheer for the gangsters, not the least reason that they are played by the glorious Morgan Freeman who lights up every role and the hilarious Chris Rock, this time as Freeman's younger and more frenzied cynic.

The standout aspect of the film is LaBute's way with capturing couples. In one marvelous fantasy scene, Charlie, who is supposedly chasing down Betty with the aim of killing her, imagines her standing next to him on a romantic evening while overlooking the Grand Canyon (which Wesley scoffingly calls "The Bland Canyon") and engaging her in a prolonged kiss. Betty also has a swell time rooming in L.A. with Rosa (Tia Texada), who encourages her to find this man of her dreams, while Betty's scenes with "Dr. David Ravell"--who at first believes she is improvising a role to get a job in his soap--later realizes with wide eyes that she has fashioned her role into an actual person. In another set of side roles that mimics the action of the gangsters, Sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince) acts the Don Quixote to the impressionable journalist Roy (Crispin Glover) who follows him across the country searching for the runaway "nurse."

With "Nurse Betty" Neil LaBute exploits John C. Richards and James Flamberg's clever and often exuberant script to poke fun at our obsession with the soaps, with TV and, yes, even movies in general, and does so without the malice that had regularly been displayed by LaBute the writer. We leave with smiles on our faces.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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