Nurse Betty
directed by Neil LaBute
(Gramercy, 2000)

Waitress Betty Sizemore is obsessed with her soap opera. She can't get her mind off the dashing Dr. David Ravell, the heart-surgeon character whose wife was tragically killed in a car accident. She watches episodes at work. Her friends tape the show for her. She escapes her humdrum life and her loser husband in the drama of Loma Vista Hospital. And that's before the hitmen scalp and shoot her good-for-nothing husband, Del, as she watches, unseen and terrified, from the next room.

And, yes, Nurse Betty is a comedy. What makes it so funny -- aside from a couple jarring moments of too-sudden violence that are too graphic for the rest of the film -- is the chemistry between some great big-name actors and some smaller, offbeat names who deserve a shot at the limelight.

Renee Zellweger is Betty, who escapes the horror of her husband's murder by convincing herself she is a nurse and the ex-fiancee of that dashing Dr. Ravell. She must go to Los Angeles in her post-traumatic stupor to find him. But can she find the guy who plays Dr. Ravell, George McCord (Greg Kinnear), before hitmen Charlie and Wesley (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) find her?

Director Neil LeBute has done some pretty dark stuff before (1997's In the Company of Men), and occasionally stumbles across the line here, losing his comedic touch in favor of Rock waving Del's bloody scalp around the living room. But usually he's right on the mark, thanks to great dialogue from John C. Richards.

Freeman and Rock, especially, make the most of their time onscreen, as an older hitman on his final job and his hotheaded, endzone-dancing partner. The experienced Charlie is convinced Betty is made of something finer, something that doesn't deserve to be "offed." He can't imagine she'd be naive enough to believe a soap character is real: Charlie: "Betty wouldn't be here because of some soap opera star. That would make her..." Wesley: "Crazy!! No s---, Shaft!"

Betty does get to meet her idol, calling him "David" and treating him like a real doctor. George McCord, for his part, thinks she's simply an extremely talented Method actor who's trying to get a part on his show. He, too, begins to fall for Betty. George: "I haven't felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York." Betty: "So, was she before (your wife?) Before us?"

It's all goofy, backed by people like Allison Janney (The West Wing, American Beauty) as the soap's producer, and Crispin Glover (The People vs. Larry Flynt) as Betty's small-town newspaper reporter ("People like to read more than just the classifieds," he says a bit defensively).

Kinnear is perfect as the narcissistic soap star, and Zellweger makes the most of her Doris Day sunniness to play a woman trapped first by an awful marriage, then by denial, then by hitmen. Together, they provide just enough weirdness to pull Betty back to reality.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 5 January 2002

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