Nurse Betty

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.

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