Nurse Betty
review by David Luty, 15 September 2000

For anyone under the impression that a well-conceived character is a likable character, a character you can care about, there was Neil LaBute who, with his In the Company of Men, responded to that idea with an emphatic "I don't think so." With a story driven by two low-level businessmen slugs, one of whom was maliciously cruel, the other merely pathetic, the no-budget indie told a riveting tale of the rat race gone worse than it already is, with the male ego crying out for attention and entitlement. LaBute followed that up with a film that supported the original manifesto. This time, with Your Friends and Neighbors, all the malice and bitterness lacked a context, and although vividly drawn, the cold-hearted characters were left out in the cold.

In this context comes Nurse Betty, directed by LaBute but for the first time not written by him. That's an important credit distinction, because it helps define the movie's significant shortcomings. In Nurse Betty, a waitress named Betty (a winning Renée Zellweger) comes straight out of the small-town working-class-dreamer school. She has a low-paying job, she has a philandering jerk of a husband, and she spends every waking hour of her day thinking about another world. Except it's not that soap opera. It's one called A Reason to Love, a daily serial set in a hospital where the hero is a dashing heart surgeon named David Ravell, played by an actor named George McCord, played by actor Greg Kinnear. When Betty witnesses a horrific act of violence, the shock sets her mind afloat, and she loses the ability to distinguish between the real world and the soap world. And so she sets out to find the love of her life in Los Angeles, the one she's always regretted letting go, the one and only Dr. David Ravell. Following close behind are Charley (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), the two hitmen who committed the horrific act that sent Betty into a tailspin. They need to finish the job they started, but as soon as they learn her story, Charley instantly falls for Betty and idealizes her in much the same way she idealizes George McCord/David Ravell.

So we're looking at a few layers of artifice here, and the movie never takes advantage, or depending upon your tastes, never falls into the trap, of the built-in postmodern possibilities the story affords. There's nothing wrong with avoiding an obvious angle, but there is something unsatisfying about what the movie chooses to do with its time instead. In the movie's best, most alive scene, when crazy deluded Betty inevitably gets to meet actor George in person, the unexpected reaction gives the character of George a deepening level. When it turns out that the movie intends him as nothing but a hissable fall guy, another male jerk to contrast against Betty's angelic, irreproachable innocence, the movie's real agenda becomes disappointingly clear. Nurse Betty, the movie, wants you the audience to like it so badly that it awkwardly and maliciously strives for likableness on all fronts.

In choosing this script as his next film project after the critical drubbing he took for Neighbors, a script that goes so clearly against his prior artistic instincts, it appears that LaBute has attempted a rather massive over-correction. He should have stuck to the lesson his first movie conveyed in such exhilarating fashion. Likableness does not necessarily translate into something worth watching. His reasons for picking the script are certainly more complex than that, but they don't much matter in the execution, because in the execution, all attempts to find substantial ground are muffled.

Underneath all its plot gyrations and personality quirks, nothing in Nurse Betty is propelled by anything but the bluntest human motivations. The plot is aimed at Betty finding her true self, but it accomplishes that from an off-putting distance. John C. Richards' and James Flamberg's script, which won the screenwriting award at this year's Cannes, dedicates all kinds of time to laughing at poor old Betty, as she interacts with people who are understandably slow to realize the nature of her dissociative sensibilities, but it comes up painfully short on any real examination of who she is. There's no Betty underneath the nurse.

So if Nurse Betty is not character study, and it is not social satire or media satire, what is it? Good movies certainly don't need to be pigeonholed movies, but Nurse Betty never quite seems to know what it wants to do or be. It portrays a candy-coated sitcom small town where a character can get his scalp sliced off. Too much of it has the feel of quirkiness for quirk's sake, and the desires and actions of its inhabitants often feel determined by an authorial agenda rather than by any impulse that flows naturally out of their personalities. That agenda turns out to be aimed at forcing all of the story's disparate bits into little more than a banal ode to following your dreams. There's nothing wrong with the message, only the medium. For all of its broad movements in tone and character mindsets and physical locations, Nurse Betty never gets to travel very far.

Directed by:
Neil LaBute

Renée Zellweger
Morgan Freeman
Chris Rock
Greg Kinnear
Aaron Eckhart
Tia Texada
Crispin Glover
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Allison Janney
Kathleen Wilhoite
Harriet Sansom Harris
Laird Mackintosh

Written by:
John C. Richards




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