Directed by Neil LaBute
Screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, based on a story by Mr. Richards
Director of Photography Jean Yves Escoffier
Edited by Joel Plotch and Steven Weisberg
Production Designer Charles Breen
Produced by Gail Mutrux and Steve Golin
Released by USA Films
Available on video and DVD
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Renee Zellweger, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Tia Texada, Crispin Glover, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Allison Janney
Reviewed by Anthony Vincent Rainone
When I picked up Nurse Betty at the video store, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a comedy, or a drama. Rene Zellweger playing a waitress in a small Kansas town who takes off for LA, in hopes of meeting her favorite soap opera character that she thinks is real, made me think comedy. But the parallel story of cut-throat hit men chasing stolen drugs made me think drama. The movie is actually a balance between fantasy and reality, humor and compassion. It succeeds on every level.
The story revolves around Betty (Rene Zellweger), a frustrated waitress who aspires to be a nurse, but who subjugates her ambitions for marriage to a cheating, low-life car salesman named Del (Aaron Eckhart). Betty is a fan of the soap opera “A Reason To Love,” and is especially enamored of the leading character Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). On her birthday, her friends at the restaurant give her cash towards resuming her nursing studies and a cardboard blow-up of Dr. Ravell. Betty spends her birthday night at home watching her soap, while her husband is entertaining two men that he described to his wife as clients, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock). In reality, Del wants to sell Charlie and Wesley some drugs he has stolen. Things degenerate and the two men end up killing Del. Betty witnesses the murder and undergoes traumatic stress disorder. The last thing she sees before going into shock is Dr. Ravell’s face on the TV screen and she suddenly thinks Dr. Ravell is her ex-fiancée. She blocks out the murder of Del and sets off for LA and her supposed former love.
The director Neil LaBute does a wonderful job of making you laugh one moment and then find your heart in your mouth the next. We are first introduced to the hit men Charlie and Wesley eating in Betty’s restaurant in Fair Oaks, with Wesley engrossed in “A Reason To Love” and eating the kind of meal that guarantees heart disease. It seems he is a big fan of the soap also. The next time we see him, he is cold-heartedly killing Del. Another example: in one scene Betty is leaving the restaurant carrying her blow-up of Dr. Ravell through town; after Del’s murder, she leaves Del a note explaining why she is giving up the marriage and heading off to LA. The plot to the movie, while arcane, is pretty much laid out in the first third of the movie. The twists are supplied by the juxtaposition of humor and pathos.
Once in LA, Betty manages to meet up with the object of her distorted imagination, Dr. Ravell, or in “real life” the actor George McCord. Kinnear gives the best performance of his career as the charming, but conniving and self-centered, soap actor. His reality is so naturally bent that he interprets Betty’s belief that they were once engaged as the expressions of a method actress. He believes she is creating a character in hopes of getting on his soap. Once again, there is a swirl of fantasy and reality, great humor and heart-wrenching compassion. When Betty comes out of her traumatic shock on the soap set, after McCord-Ravell yells at her for making him look bad when she flops as an actress, the movie touches an emotional vein. It takes huge risks and wins every time.
Zellwenger makes her character work by combining purity of heart and determination, without coming across as flighty or stupid. It is her forthrightness and desire to help that make her idealism work. Betty wants to be a nurse “to help people.” That altruism is refreshing for an otherwise cynical healthcare system. And her conviction lets her get away with the seemingly impossible. Consider the scene where a gunman starts shooting outside of a hospital where Betty has gone to find Dr. Ravell. Everyone else dives for cover, but Betty faces down the gunman to get to a wounded man. She manages to save his life by applying nursing skills she learned from her soap opera.
Parallel to Betty’s pursuit of Ravell is the story of Charlie and Wesley (Freeman and Rock) pursuing Betty. It seems that the drugs Del was trying to sell them were stolen from their associates. They were sent to get them back and teach Del a lesson, which they only half succeeded. Del hid the drugs in one of his cars on his lot, a Buick LeSabre. It is the car Betty takes to drive to LA. Freeman and Rock are compelling in their portrayal of a hit man that turns to fancy (Freeman) and a hit man that is thoroughly grounded in reality (Rock). Charlie is convinced that he is chasing a woman who is holy and pure, but his convictions are not actual. In one incredible moment, he dances with an image of Betty at a scenic overlook in the Grand Canyon. Wesley has to bring him back to earth. Wesley may be the most one-dimensional character in the movie, though even he has his moments. His feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Crispin Glover, Tia Texada and Pruitt Taylor Vince give great supporting performances and serve as the catalyst that bring fantasy and reality together at the end, resulting in a very violent but necessary ending. They also supply comic relief to some very tense moments. Texada is very good as the girlfriend Rosa.
Nurse Betty covers a lot of thematic ground. Its most important messages may be that there is a place for fantasy in everyday life: perhaps we could get through our lives without it. We all have dreams and hopes, perhaps often not practical, but necessary. Sometimes, dreams do come true. Because her fantasy world asserts itself, Betty leaves her small town, expands her world and eventually achieves her goals.
Nurse Betty has been nominated for a Edgar for Best Picture. Winners will be announced May 3, 2001 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City.
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