Nurse Betty

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Betty Sizemore's (Renie Zellweger, "Me, Myself & Irene") nursing dreams were dashed by her boorish car-salesman husband Del (Aaron Eckhart, "Erin Brokovich"). She spends her days waitressing at the local Tip Top diner and losing herself in 'A Reason to Love,' the hospital set soap whose lead character, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear, "As Good As It Gets") gives Betty a reason to live. When Betty witnesses two hitmen kill her husband, she totally loses her grip with reality and travels to LA to find her true love in "Nurse Betty."

Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) is a waitress at a little diner in Kansas City. She's married to an abusive bully named Del (Aaron Eckhart) who sells used cars and is involved in some pretty shady dealings. It's no wonder that the highlight of Betty's day is to watch the videotape of her favorite soap opera, "A Reason to Love" each evening. While watching her show one night, she witnesses the murder of her husband by two strangers over a drug deal. The killers don't see her and Betty goes into a kind of amnesiac state, forgetting her real life and suddenly believes she is the ex-fiance of the fictional Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear) from her television story. She leaves Kansas for LA in search of her beloved (in her mind) doctor, not knowing she has two very upset hit men on her trail in director Neil LaBute's "Nurse Betty."

Neil Labute is not known for his bouts of lighthearted whimsy - if you witnessed his previous films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," you'll know what I mean. "Nurse Betty" hardly seems the kind of story the more darkly natured director would take on for his third work. But, it is a good decision and marks LaBute as a multitalented up and comer in the industry.

The rather conventional concept of the heroine going on the lam to escape the vengeful bad guys is skewed 180 degrees, in the script by newcomer James Flanberg, with the intro of Betty's unusual amnesia, triggered by Del's untimely, violent (though not entirely undeserved) death. The sudden shock to the system propels her to fall under the delusion that "A Reason to Love" is real life and that she jilted Dr. David a year and a half before. Realizing the error of her ways, in her confused mind, she packs her stuff up and heads to LA to make things right with her handsome ex-fiance.

Meanwhile, the two hit men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), are frantic when they realize that both Betty and a Buick loaded with their drugs are gone. They, too, head across country looking for clues as to where Betty will show up. Charlie, at first, thinks that Betty is a "cunning, ruthless woman" who coldly took off with the drugs that were the cause of Del's death. As he and his cynical partner Wes try to find her trail, Charlie begins to fall for the pretty Betty as he gazes at her photo and builds an image of her in his mind as they cross the country. By the time the pair hit LA, Charlie is thoroughly smitten by the idea that he has fallen for Betty.

Just when I was wondering how the heck the upcoming collision between Betty and the boys would be handled, the charming, darkly funny screenplay by Flanberg takes a twisty turn when Betty performs a heroic act while searching for her beloved Dr. David. (This is where the "nurse" in "Nurse Betty" comes in to play.) The real fun of the film is watching this part of the story unfold, so I'm not going to discuss it. Let it be said that LaBute and his team of filmmakers - on both sides of the camera - make the twists work in a way that is funny, sad, entertaining and, in the end, extremely satisfying.

Renee Zellweger is an interesting actress who made a successful splash with "Jerry Maguire," but hasn't had a chance, since, to show her acting talent in a larger venue. With "Nurse Betty," this changes. Zellweger shows the comedic talent to hold the lead of the film and acquits herself in both the funny and dramatic bits. Morgan Freeman, one of America's finest actors, hasn't had the chance to really show his acting chops for quite a while. (Of course, the great actor always gives his best to his films, even if the films themselves don't.) Here, he gets the chance to create an interesting, sympathetic character - who happens to kill people for a living. As Freeman goes from the tough, deadly businessman to the romantic, smitten "suitor" of Betty, you can see why he is one of the best in the business. The rest of the cast is first rate, too. Chris Rock, as the acerbic, cynical Wesley has an inherent mean streak that gives his no-nonsense killer an edginess that lingers right to the end. The comedic background of the actor helps to lend a dark funniness to the edge. Crispin Glover ("Wild at Heart"), as Kansas reporter Roy, and Pruitt Taylor Vince ("Heavy") as Sheriff Eldon Ballard have small, but significant roles - displaying good humor, too - especially in the film's shoot 'em up finale. Greg Kinnear gives the right note to his dual perf as soap star George McCord and his TV doctor persona. Allison Janney, as George's producer, helps flesh out the background with a tight, funny performance. Tia Texada ("Paulie") is both bright and sassy as the Hispanic women who befriends Betty (remember the heroic act I mentioned?) after "Nurse" Betty saves her boy friend.

The production team behind the camera complements the telling of this offbeat tale with a nice harmony. Veteran cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier ("Cradle Will Rock") gives a unique and interesting look to each locale the characters visit in their separate journeys. Costume, by Lynette Meyer ("Your Friends & Neighbors"), is sometimes kitchy, especially with Betty dressed in her waitress outfit looking like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." (To reinforce the Kansas image, Betty is called "Dorothy" at one point.) Helmer LaBute moves the story and its characters right along with nary a moment wasted.

If you're looking for a dark, funny, sometimes caustic, comedy that is a challenge to the mind - something the summer film fling doesn't often allow - make tracks to the theater and ask to see "Nurse Betty." It will be the right prescription. I give it an A-.

We first meet Betty on her birthday, where she impresses out-of-towner Charlie (Morgan Freeman, "Kiss the Girls") with her ability to pour coffee without peeling her eyes off her soap. Her coworkers present her with a lifesize cardboard cutout of her hero along with a birthday cupcake (which Del scoffs later). Her celebratory plans with best friend Sue Ann (Kathleen Wilhoite, "Drowning Mona") are first challenged when Del refuses to lend her a Le Sabre, insisting she take a Corsica instead (Betty switches the key Del's secretary/mistress gives her anyway), then dashed when Sue Ann's unable to get a babysitter.

Betty returns home and holes herself up in the den to watch her soap on video, ignoring Del when he returns to do business with the two men Betty served earlier, Charlie and Wesley (Chris Rock, "Lethal Weapon IV"). They're really out to retrieve stolen drugs that Del's gotten himself mixed up in and Del ends up dead when Wesley overacts and attempts to scalp(!) him. Betty waltzes out while town Sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince, "Heavy") and local reporter Roy (Crispin Glover, downplaying his usual weirdness quotient) stand aghast in the crime scene. Her disappearance raises suspicion with Charlie and Wesley, who are ordered to take her out.

Betty journeys from Kansas to LA and secures a job as a nurse and a place to stay with the thankful Rosa (Tia Texada, "Paulie") after acting quickly during a shootout/kidnapping in front of the hospital which had just turned her away. Then Rosa gets her into a charity event where actor George McCord is making an appearance and Betty's rapturous greeting to her beloved 'ex-fiance, David Ravell' impresses him and the show's producer/writer Lyla (Allison Janney, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") as improvisational acting. Betty's in heaven, Rosa's perplexed, George and Lyla are revamping their show. Back home Roy, Ballard and Sue Ann are putting the pieces together to track her down, but Charlie and Wesley are two steps ahead of them and already heading west.

Zellweger buries memories of her last two unsuccessful flicks to triumph as a good-hearted, if delusional, small town girl. Betty's sweetness personified, but never cloying, and her ability to waft from one dream to the next is utterly convincing. Freeman and Rock are an inspired pairing with the calm, philosophical elder keeping the young firebrand on a short leash (until his own delusions take the story on yet another twist). There's a little bit of "Fargo" in these two mismatched hitmen who end up inside small town weirdness neither of them anticipated. Kinnear is well suited to the soap star looking for a new sensation to jack up his ratings, and plays his soap scenes with satirically grave intensity. Once again Eckhart amazes with his chameleonic abilities, impressing in a small role as the loathsome, mullet-haired Del.

First time screenwriters John C. Richards (also 'story by') and James Flamberg have created a memorably original world whose characters follow surprising paths. The compassion and humor in the script makes it one of the year's best. Director Neil LaBute has made a wise decision stepping away from his own nihilistic writing, showcasing his talents in this far sunnier (albeit still sometimes blackly humorous) space. He and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier ("Cradle Will Rock") amusingly begin to block their shots in the 'real' world just like their heroine's television fantasy.

"Nurse Betty" is a rich film that always has another surprise around the corner. If some climatic occurrences don't play quite as neatly as they should, one can still take immense pleasure from the imaginative filmmaking here that can bind Betty's character to Charlie's with the star on her tee shirt.


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