Nurse Betty (2000) ***
Directed by Neil LaBute. Written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, based on a story by Richards. Photography, Jean Yves Escoffier. Editing, Joel Plotch and Steven Weisberg. Production design, Charles Breen. Music, Rolfe Kent. Produced by Gail Mutrux and Steve Golin. Cast: Renée Zellweger (Betty), Morgan Freeman (Charlie), Chris Rock (Wesley), Greg Kinnear (Dr. David Ravell/George McCord), Aaron Eckhart (Del), Tia Texada (Rosa), Crispin Glover (Roy), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Ballard) Allison Janney (Lyla), et al. A USA Films release. 112 minutes. R (violence and language)
After a mostly dismal summer of films made mostly by pea brains for culture dropouts, "Nurse Betty" (NB from now on) may (or not) be marking a turning. It premiered in May at the Cannes Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award. I saw it then and I just saw it again. It's a good film that goes in several directions while keeping its focus on the charming, next-door pretty Renee Zellweger as Betty.
Sixty-one years after The Wizard of Oz, Betty, like Dorothy, is a Kansan who leaves her state. Although she is not transported to a magic land, like Dorothy, she does so in a way. She takes off in a Buick, drives to La-la Land in Southern California to make her dream come true. In Fair Oaks, Kansas, Betty is a a sweet, apple-cheeked, apple-cheeked, liked-by-all waitress in a diner. She is married to scummy used-car dealer Del who does not appreciate her, cheats on her, acts like a creep and is into very shady non-car deals.
Betty in a TVholic who watches (and tapes) incessantly the soaper "A Reason to Love." In it actor George McCord plays the super-duper surgeon and heartthrob Dr.David Ravell. Betty is so much in love with the Doctor character that he has become real to her. She's rushes home to catch the next episode. A closed door separates her from the living room in which Del brings two men, older Charlie and the latter's young sidekick Wesley. They have an underworld deal with Del who has done something unkosher. He gets killed, but in an unexpected (and yes, funny) way that involves his badmouthing native Americans, the guests' shocked reaction at Del's racism, a scalping and a gun.
Putting it briefly, Betty plunges deeper and deeper into the fiction of the soap opera, reinvents herself as a nurse who some years ago had an affair with Dr. David, and travels to L.A. to meet the good Doctor. She keeps quoting to herself a kind of mantra, David's words in the soap: " I know there's someone special out there for me." Betty is convinced that she is that someone
The film rapidly becomes a road movie (and quite an original one) in which encounters flirt with the picaresque. Charlie and Welsley are after her. In the process, the older man idealizes her while Wesley thinks his companion is crazy. Eventually, and through the wildest (and funniest) of developments, Betty is taken for a nurse, meets actor George McCord, persists in calling him David and in acting as though she were really David's old flame and a real nurse. George gets convinced that it is all a game on her part in order to be hired in the soaper.
The whole thing is delightful, humorous, funny and comical, yet also sad, and quite (but clearly) complicated in its para-Pirandellesque way. There's no way to assign the movie to a genre, and in this it will recall many of the non-genre or mixed-genre films of the French New Wave, which also echo here through several references to movies.
It is a fantasy which is impossible, even incoherent, but lack of logic is no defect in this case. It is a black comedy. It is a hybrid --in a positive way, as in hybrid roses. It is literally a crazy quilt whose components are handled with legerdemain, like a shell game. It works-- except for the tacked on happy ending--a minor weakness.
In this screwball (but non-slapsticky) picture whose heroine has a screw loose there is no message. To say that it is a comic critique of television's sway on people would be an oversimplification. The closest I can come to finding kissin' cousins in today's American cinema is the Coen Brothers, with touches of Tarantino.
The acting by all is bull's eye class, except for the annoying, two-expressions playing by Chris Rock and his repeated ad nauseam f-word and s-word. His only virtue is that he underlines, by contrast, the excellent, even subtle performance by Morgan Freeman whose character gets increasingly complex.