With his first two films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends &
Neighbors," writer/director Neil LaBute explored corporate and sexual
politics with a searing eye that thrilled many viewers, while sending others
racing for the exits. This time around, Fort Wayne, Indiana's most noted
provocateur ventures a little closer to the mainstream, albeit a mainstream
with some choppy waters and the occasional acidic eddy.
"Nurse Betty" is a skewed fairy tale, a loopy road movie that shifts in tone
from whimsical to soothing to shocking and back again. With a (mostly)
crackerjack cast and a plot that zags every time you expect it to zig, the
production is a welcome relief after weeks and weeks of lousy flicks.
The story, which earned John C. Richards and James Flamberg a Best
Screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, chronicles a pivotal
period in the life of Betty (Renee Zellweger), a coffee shop waitress and
ardent soap opera fan in Fair Oaks, Kansas. Although her smarmy car-salesman
husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart), has forgotten her birthday, Betty plans to
celebrate in style, borrowing a car from her hubby's lot for a night on the
town with a girlfriend.
But matters go terribly wrong. After watching a tape of her favorite serial,
"A Reason to Love," and swooning when the show's most popular character, Dr.
David Ravell (Greg Kinnear) intones "I know there's someone special out
there for me," Betty glances into her living room and witnesses a horrific
sight. Husband Del is frantically negotiating with hit men Charlie (Morgan
Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), when an ugly exchange leads his being
scalped and then shot to death (sensitive viewers should be ready to avert
their eyes several times during the film). The shock throws Betty into a
fugue state, marked by a combination of amnesia and physical fright. The
suddenly psychotic woman, who always dreamed of being a nurse, hops into the
1997 Buick LaSabre and heads towards Los Angeles for a romantic "reunion"
with her beloved Dr. Ravell.
Among the many things Betty doesn't know is that the car's trunk holds the
very cache of drugs that prompted Del's visit from the hit men. Charlie and
Wesley set out after Betty, determined to recover the narcotics and wipe out
the witness to their work.
"Nurse Betty" is one of those rare films able to reference numerous other
movies ("The Wizard of Oz," "Thelma and Louise" "The Purple Rose of Cairo,"
"Being There" and "Pulp Fiction," to name but a few), while still feeling
like a true original. LaBute, whose previous movies were marked by
inventive, but minimalist camera movements, proves adroit at fluid
filmmaking. As always, he brings out the best from his performers.
Renee Zellweger, so terrific in "Jerry Maguire," does her best work to date
here, making a remarkably smooth transition from sweet, mousy housewife to
whacked-out adventurer. But her best moments come when the fugue state
cracks, plunging the woman into an alien reality. Despite her massive,
understandable confusion, she displays a grand air of strength and personal
resolve while sorting things out.
Morgan Freeman is equally impressive as senior hit man Charlie. Freeman, one
of the best actors working today, creates a complex persona that somehow
manages to remain sympathetic despite his deadly occupation. Greg Kinnear is
solid and likable in the dual roles of a soap opera character and a "real
life" actor, while the wonderful Allison Janney gracefully steals scenes as
the producer of "A Reason to Love."
On the down side, Aaron Eckhart is wasted in a brief, cartoonish turn as
Betty's piggish husband. Eckhart, who starred in both of LaBute's other
films and won a wide audience as Julia Roberts' boyfriend in "Erin
Brokovich," deserves more than a glorified cameo appearance. And then
there's Chris Rock. Yes, I know he has legions of fans. Yes, his abrasive
behavior fits that of junior assassin Wesley. But Rock's loud, whiny style
is pure, fingernails-on-the-blackboard annoying to me. I look forward to the
day when he becomes seasoned enough to deliver his high quality jokes in a
less screechy fashion.
Still, "Nurse Betty" is a corker. The highlight of the film is
unquestionably Betty's cocktail party exchange with key members of "A Reason
to Love," where her psychosis is mistaken as a Method Acting audition, but
what happens soon after is even more admirable. I won't spoil it for you.
Suffice to say that the screenwriters recognized the perfect moment for
Betty's fugue state to end, allowing her journey to move from fantasy to
substance. Following a summer where most film characters were depicted
spinning in circles, it's gratifying to watch someone grow as a person. It's
gratifying to watch the enormously gifted Neil Labute's filmmaking growth as
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott