Heretofore known for his viciously incisive, very black socio-sexual satires, director Neil LaBute takes a joyride in antic comedy territory with "Nurse Betty." It's charming effort of pure entertainment about a gentle, bouncy Kansas waitress who becomes convinced she's a part of her favorite soap opera after being sent into post-traumatic shock by witnessing a murder.
The murder was that of her abusive, redneck husband (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart in another amazing chameleon performance) -- a retribution for a shady business deal gone wrong.
The waitress, Betty Sizemore, is the kind of bona fide wide-eyed innocent most Hollywood actresses wouldn't be able to play without slipping into a hammy, ignorant hayseed routine and winking ironically at the audience. But in the hands of Renée Zellweger -- who proved her sweetheart credibility in "Jerry Maguire" -- Betty is 100 percent genuine sugar.
She's so absorbed in the cheesy daytime drama "A Reason to Love" -- starring handsome, talentless George McCord (Greg Kinnear) as sexy surgeon Dr. David Ravell -- that she can blindly pour coffee at the diner without turning away from the TV. She's so eager to please that she kowtows to her callous husband's whims. She's so sensitive and tentative that she walks in tippy-toey baby steps, as if unsure of where a long stride might take her. Zellweger carries all this off beautifully and without a hint of caricature.
So watching through a crack in her bedroom door as her husband is scalped (LaBute's dark touches rear their heads now and again) is just too much for Betty's delicate disposition. She flips out and her mind retreats to her favorite place -- the melodramatic world of "A Reason to Love."
Slipping into imagination, she concocts a fantasy in which she is "Nurse Betty," Dr. Ravell's long-lost ex-fiancée. She boosts a Buick from her dead husband's used car lot and makes for L.A., the setting of the soap, giddy to reunite with him.
Meanwhile, the hit men are hot on her trail, bickering like an old married couple. LaBute scored another casting coup with this duo: Morgan Freeman plays the elder, calm and courtly criminal, who develops a crush on Betty from reading her diary and staring at her photograph. Chris Rock is his short-tempered protégé, forever popping off about the fact that his partner seems to have cracked.
LaBute's black humor sensibilities, which caused such a swirl of controversy around his "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," give a bit of bite to the movie's Coen Brothers-like atmosphere as he flirts with the caustic while keeping one foot firmly planted in a chirpy sincerity that is both winsome and funny.
This is the first film LaBute has directed from someone else's script. While the screenplay (by John C. Richards and James Flamberg) took an award home at Cannes this year, had it been handed to some dime-a-dozen helmsman who cut his teeth on music videos, it could have been dumbed down to a low-brow slapstick matinee starring whichever sexy-perky sitcom-transplant was hot during the casting call.
It's LaBute's weighty casting and surprisingly subtle, go-with-the-flow approach to the story's absurdities that makes the film so enjoyable.
Once in L.A., Betty dumb-lucks into a pharmacy job at the hospital where she thinks Dr. Ravell works, and soon a spicy Latina (Tia Texada) she's befriended tries to shake her out of her fantasy by taking her to a charity do where soap star McCord is appearing -- out of character.
But when she approaches him like an old lover and addresses him by his character's name, McCord assume she's a pushy actress forcing an audition on him. When he decides to play along, hoping to get her in bed, the escapade only accelerates.
Every ingredient that went into the making of "Nurse Betty" was carefully measured by LaBute, who proves himself a very good cook. Every performance is not only true to each three-dimensionally written character, but is individually entertaining. Kinnear, for example, makes a perfect egotistical soap star. "Couldn't I have an evil twin?" he begs Allison Janney ("Drop Dead Gorgeous"), who steals a few scenes herself as the soap's acerbic producer.
Plus, LaBute has a taste for incidental comedic details that give the movie character -- like the Dorothy-goes-to-the-prom gingham checked dress Betty wears in a romantic fantasy Freeman has about her, or the way the director establishes what a habitual cheat Betty's husband is by introducing him in a office sex scene with his secretary, passing the camera just above them to show the wear on the wall where the secretary's shoes and fingernails have scratched the same spot innumerable times before.
While "Nurse Betty" isn't quite the sum of its such impeccable parts, Zellweger's incredibly earnest, enthusiastic performance ties it all together in a way no other actress could.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th September 2000
Box Office USA: $25.0M
Distributed by: USA Films
Production compaines: USA Films, Gramercy Pictures, Intermedia
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 109 Rotten: 21
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Neil LaBute
Starring: Renée Zellweger as Betty Sizemore, Morgan Freeman as Charlie, Chris Rock as Wesley, Greg Kinnear as Dr. David Ravell/George McCord, Aaron Eckhart as Del Sizemore, Tia Texada as Rosa Hernandez, Crispin Glover as Roy Ostery