Archive for September 8, 2000

Nurse Betty

September 8, 2000

Every so often, usually at the end of a long dry spell, a movie comes along that cuts through the garbage and reminds you what movies are for. Pulp Fiction was one of those films that stated loud and clear, “This is what you want, you just didn’t know it until now”; L.A. Confidential was another, and now there is Nurse Betty — a characteristically deceptive name for a movie of such surprising depth. It left me more than a little rattled; with a director like Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) and a cast including Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, I expected to be amused. I didn’t expect to be moved.

Zellweger stars as Betty Sizemore, a Kansas waitress married to a loutish car salesman named Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart). The first reel or so is like the expected LaBute film in miniature: Del is thoroughly contemptible — he cheats on Betty and forgets her birthday (he absently eats the birthday cupcake given to her at work) — and he gets a swift comeuppance when he runs afoul of two hit-men, Charlie (Freeman) and Wesley (Rock), who accompany him to his house looking for some hidden drugs. Unbeknownst to everyone, Betty is also in the house, watching her favorite soap opera A Reason to Love at low volume. She eavesdrops on the men’s business meeting long enough to see Del dispatched in a particularly gruesome way not seen much in movies outside of Westerns.

The entire sweetly optimistic movie grows out of the shock and horror of Del’s murder, and Betty’s reaction to it. Betty can’t process it; somewhere in her mind, she puts a wall up against what she’s seen, and is compelled to go to Los Angeles to find Dr. David Revell, a dashing doctor on A Reason to Love. Revell is played by a hack actor named George McCord, who in turn is played by the much more skillful Greg Kinnear. Like Robin Williams’ medieval trip in The Fisher King, Betty’s fantasy is literally escapist, a flight from ugly reality, and she latches onto the blank Dr. Revell as the embodiment of true love and happiness. Meanwhile, Charlie and Wesley hit the road in pursuit of Betty, and Charlie develops his own fantasy image of Betty — her image draws him out of cynicism and makes this seasoned assassin believe that innocence is actually still possible.

It would be a mistake to think that LaBute wants us to laugh at Betty or Charlie for their delusions. This is the first movie he’s directed from a script he didn’t write (John C. Richards and James Flamberg did the screenplay, a prizewinner at Cannes), and it suggests a new direction for LaBute — not sell-out, exactly, but generosity of spirit. Nurse Betty has an undertone of sadness and trauma even in the cheeriest of moments; we don’t want Betty to snap out of her fugue state and remember everything, and when the actor George brings Betty to the set of A Reason to Love and asks her to act with the cast — thinking that she’s an ambitious actress with a great gift for improv — Renée Zellweger’s performance, which up till then had been soulfully touching, comes close to heartbreak.

LaBute treats his cast gently (except maybe for Eckhart, who’s still paying for the creep he played in Company); he gets an atypical turn out of Chris Rock, not remotely his usual hyperactive self here — I don’t think he smiles once. Freeman, too, puts across Charlie’s increasingly giddy attraction to Betty, sharing an imaginary dance with her at the Grand Canyon; left to his own devices, the old LaBute would never have allowed himself such a … well, romantic moment. I read Nurse Betty as LaBute’s movement from theater (which his previous two movies essentially were: filmed plays) to movies — the escapist spell they can cast on us. Without an ounce of cleverness or hipness, the film quietly speaks volumes about why we go to movies, and then proves it.

The Watcher

September 8, 2000

If serial killers hadn’t already existed, Hollywood screenwriters would have had to invent them; as it is, there have probably been more serial-killer movies in the last ten years than there have been actual serial killers in the last century. The late, lamented Gene Siskel had grown bored to tears with S-K thrillers in recent years, and I wish he were still around to bash new entries like The Cell and now The Watcher — two of the worst films ever to open at #1 at the box office.

In a way, movies that announce their awfulness in the first five minutes, as The Watcher does, are preferable to films that begin well and sadly go south: At least you’ve had fair warning. The Watcher was directed by one Joe Charbanic, whose resumé includes videos for Keanu Reeves’ rock band Dogstar; Charbanic wastes no time getting nostalgic for his roots, zapping us with a nonsensical montage of Keanu (as the movie’s serial killer) cavorting around to the beat of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” (the music buys the movie unearned association with a better Keanu movie, The Matrix, which featured the same song).

Most of the movie’s remainder is little better, and I was offended to hear a snippet of Portishead — a sumptuous, moody sound that belongs miles away from The Watcher — adorning a dull scene between burned-out FBI cop James Spader and his shrink Marisa Tomei. (Marisa Tomei as a psychiatrist? Let that sink in.) Spader and Reeves have a history: Spader spent three years trying to catch Reeves, whose modus operandi is to spy on young women and then kill them. The frazzled, migraine-plagued Spader moved to Chicago; now Reeves has followed him there and begun his killings anew, because every Moriarty needs a Sherlock, right?

James Spader is more or less responsible for my losing 97 minutes of my life to this movie, since he was the main reason I bothered with it, but I can’t be too mad at him. Given a kindergarten-level script (by David Elliot and Clay Ayers), Spader does the best he can, bringing gut-level intensity and gravity to his scenes. Still, if you dump a load of manure on a butterfly, you can’t expect it to fly very well, and after a while Spader wriggles around in this muck despite his hardest efforts to maintain some personal dignity. Marisa Tomei is here only to give Reeves a star to kidnap (as opposed to the no-name actresses he slaughters, who apparently don’t mean as much). Keanu, as other reviewers have noted, is Keanu — a blank slate on which talented filmmakers can sometimes draw. No such doodling here.

Where does The Watcher cross the line? Is it in its utter serial-killer-template approach to its story? (I mean, for once let’s see a serial killer who doesn’t spout one-liners or devise elaborate schemes to trap his prey.) Is it in such ridiculous scenes as the one in which Keanu drives his car through some gas tanks and tosses a lighter, incinerating everything in the area except his gas-soaked car? Is it in the pompous style of the film (Keanu presumably has a vision problem — his point of view is always shot on digital video)? Is it in the clichéd writing of the Spader character, whose unenviable quality of living is underscored by the familiar empty fridge?

Well, it’s all of that and one thing more. Perhaps it’s that I’m getting older, or maybe I’m just tired of serial-killer movies (whose victims tend to be female exclusively), but if I never see another scene in which a woman is bound and gagged, terrified and knowing she’s going to die, while her killer struts around the room basking in his own psychotic cleverness, I won’t mind a bit. One depiction of murder in The Watcher struck me as morally repugnant — the killing of a homeless young woman, reduced to a rock-video shorthand of brutality. The losses of life are meaningless, just beats in a screenplay without rhythm. I would rather have seen a ten-second synopsis of The Watcher — “Here’s Keanu. He’s bad. Here’s Spader. He’s good. Good eventually defeats bad. Have a nice day” — than sit through it at 97-minute length.