In the darkly comic “Nurse Betty,” his third and most accomplished picture, Neil LaBute puts aside the intense explorations of misogyny that dominated his earlier films (“In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors”) and immerses himself in a lighter romantic fable that deals with the collision of fantasy and reality. As a small-town waitress stuck in a bad marriage but determined to make her dreams come true, a terrific Renee Zellweger heads a superlative cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and, in his liveliest performance to date, Greg Kinnear. With the right marketing and handling, USA release can score big with a clever, vastly entertaining film that should go way beyond the small indie auds of LaBute’s previous efforts.
Changing pace and choosing the kind of fare he would appear unlikely to direct proves a smart career move by LaBute, whose first two films suffered from a static, theatrical quality. “Nurse Betty” arrives at a time when critics had begun to suspect that LaBute may be more a provocative writer, interested in shock strategies and the theater of cruelty, than a filmmaker capable of telling a story in a visually satisfying manner.
New picture demonstrates a quantum leap forward for LaBute as a helmer in command of film grammar, a feat achieved with the undeniable help of ace French lenser Jean Yves Escoffier.
Working for the first time with a script he didn’t write, LaBute shows good instincts in turning John C. Richards and James Flamberg’s yarn about the intricate link between art and life into a rousing enterprise set largely outdoors (also a first for LaBute). This road comedy, perhaps inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” takes full advantage of its shifting locales and states of mind.
First scene shows Kansas waitress Betty (Zellweger) more interested in the romantic shenanigans of the daytime soap “A Reason to Love” than in serving her customers. The popular TV show offers escape from her bleak reality; back home, Betty has to endure the company of her no-good car salesman hubby, Del (Aaron Eckhart), an abusive man who treats her like dirt. When he forgets her birthday and friend Sue Ann (Kathleen Wilhoite) is also busy, Betty decides to celebrate the event alone, quietly.
One night while watching a tape of that day’s soap episode, Betty hears her favorite character, Dr. David Ravell, stare at the moon and say, “I know there’s someone special out there for me.” It’s a line that touches a deep chord — she repeats it over and over again — and provides the stimulus to what turns out to be a life-changing experience.
Opportunity knocks when a drug deal between Del and two hit men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his easily excitable protege, Wesley (Chris Rock), goes horrendously, fatally awry. When Del’s dumb racist remarks about Native Americans irritate the duo, he winds up on the wrong end of a gun in a gratuitous violent scene that recalls the Coen brothers’ movies.
Traumatized by the savagery that she’s accidentally witnessed, Betty chooses the path taken by Mia Farrow’s victimized housewife in Woody Allen’s Depression-era fable “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” entering a kind of alternate reality. Assuming the soap’s persona of Nurse Betty, she’s set on returning to the love of her life, Dr. Ravell, whom she jilted at the altar six years ago.
Betty leaves Kansas in a borrowed 1997 Buick, failing to realize that it contains the stuff her husband’s killers are looking for. Her mind is intensely focused on what she perceives as her calling and mission: a reunion with Ravell.
Rest of tale is conveyed through cross-cutting between Betty’s personal adventures and the duo of killers chasing her.
Shrewd script offers amusing variations on the familiar screen types of hit men. Bickering in the manner of Oscar and Felix, Charlie and Wesley engage in wildly differing assessments of their prey: Wesley sees her as a coldly calculating bitch, while Charlie begins to fantasize and obsess about her. In a masterful scene, set in the Grand Canyon at night, the courtly Charlie sees himself dancing with Betty.
What keeps the saga’s engines going is a thick plot with countless twists and turns. Scripters seem intrigued by couples, offering up at least half a dozen of them. Betty bonds with a warm and friendly Latina, Rosa (Tia Texada), after saving latter’s brother from death in a shooting accident; then there’s the duo of sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and reporter Roy (Crispin Glover), who are also following Betty.
Centerpiece, and what gives pic its heart, is the encounter between Betty and yet another couple: George McCord (Kinnear), who plays Dr. Ravell, and his acidic writer-producer, Lyla (Allison Janney). Mesmerized by her very presence, George thinks that Betty would like to get a part in his soap, only to realize that she’s after something bigger than that. As pic explores, in many variations, the question of whether life imitates art or vice versa, the lines between fantasy and reality blur.
LaBute has always coaxed terrific performances from his casts, but here he does an especially outstanding job of letting each thesp in the large ensemble shine. Few actresses can convey the kind of honesty and humanity that Zellweger does here — it’s hard to imagine the film without her dominant, thoroughly credible performance.
There’s wonderful chemistry between Freeman and Rock as the killers. Former demonstrates yet again that he’s a brilliant actor who can bring nobility to any part he plays, while Rock proves a good foil. Kinnear has done good work before, but he has never come across with such effortless appeal.
A dizzying array of secondary performers, all playing succinctly drawn characters, gives the movie a frenzied, funny texture. Janney, who has some of the wittiest one-liners, is perfect as the producer, and Texada is sexy and enticing. Other small roles that come to vivid life include that of Eckhart (LaBute’s quintessential actor, having appeared in all his pics), Vince as the sheriff and Glover as the intense writer.
Unlike LaBute’s previous films, which were intimate and abstractly set in unnamed cities, “Nurse Betty” benefits from a large-scale scheme and specific locales. Tech credits are good across the board, particularly Escoffier’s widescreen lensing, which is impeccably filled with inventive, often mesmerizing compositions.