“Nurse Betty” is not your average comedy. It’s not even your average film. Rather, it’s a bit of all different genres rolled into one. It goes from being a screwball comedy, to a dreamlike fantasy, to a hit man film, back to a fantasy and so on. It also, along with this year’s “The Cell” and a few others, is a true “love it or hate it” film. Some will feel strongly about this movie, saying that “Betty” is brilliantly subversive, while others will call it garbage, funny only because its so poorly done. What “Nurse Betty” is, falls into neither of those categories. It’s a smart film and sometimes too much for its own good. It’s full of delectable performances and a clever script. At the same time, one can wonder how long the audience is supposed to stay with this story before getting fed up.
Renee Zellweger is Betty, a small town girl from Kansas, married to a mean lout (the always wonderful Aaron Eckhart) who could care less about her if dinner is ready. The only thing that brings this poor waitress happiness is her soap opera and its star, played by Greg Kinnear. After a horrific crime is committed by two hit men (Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman), Betty snaps and starts to confuse fantasy with reality. She sets off from Kansas to LA to “reunite herself” with Kinnear’s character, whom she now believes is real. The hit men follow her, and one (Freeman) becomes obsessed with Betty.
If it sounds like a bizarre plot, you haven’t seen the whole film. What makes it work as a zainy comedy, with some true to life morals and messages thrown in, is director Neil LaBute. LaBute has directed two other films, including the wonderful “In the Company of Men”, which is still one of the best debut features of modern years. LaBute has always treated his women characters with a strange type of love. He likes to have them chased and their dreams dashed, yet they always stay true to their dream and come out on top. Betty ishave lost control of the material. Though he always regains it, “Nurse Betty” may have been more successful and the excellent satire some claim if LaBute had molded the screenplay more to his liking and talent.
That said LaBute still makes a film that’s a true treat. Zellweger shines in what is probably her best role so far. Betty is such a sweetheart and never grating because Zellweger never dumbs her down or uses her sweetness to make fun of her intentions. It’s a showy role, but Zellweger is one of the main reasons the film succeeds. Chris Rock also shines in a role that is very uncharacteristic for him. Although he is given some great comedic lines, he always seems on the edge, and Rock uses his manic energy to make a funny, yet, menacing hit man. Freeman does a 180 of his vigilante character in “Unforgiven”, this time playing a killer that is so obsessed with being a professional, he cannot see Betty as anything but a cunning yet charming thief. Freeman does not do comedy often, which is a shame because he shows a real flair for it here. Rounding out the leads if Kinnear, once again playing a slimeball wonderfully as he did in this summer’s “Loser.” If a director needs an actor to play a creep, you can’t get much better then Kinnear.
Many will mistake “Nurse Betty” and its comedy as pure stupidity. The message of the film is more relevant now than ever, as pop culture infects our lives more. Betty is a sweet yet confused girl, but one can sympathize with delusions, as she has gone through a trauma making her snap. The film raises the subtle question of whose crazy, Betty, or the society that creates soaps and other false realities that viewers escape to when life is hard. The film is really a message of what happens when we escape reality too much. That being said, this message never comes totally through her in this film, as in others like “The Truman Show.” So, “Nurse Betty” is not groundbreaking and not horrible. Rather, it’s a very funny and sweet film that, despite its flaws, is a good time with good performances. It can leave a loving viewer with a smile on his or hers face.