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Nurse Betty

Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Rénee Zellweger, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Allison

(USA Films; 2000)

Never abandon your instincts

Betty’s married to Del, who’s sleeping with Joyce, who used to work at the diner with Betty, who’s in love with David, who’s in love with himself, but isn’t really who he appears to be. Such romantic roundelays are familiar soap-operatic territory. Typically dismissed as “women’s” domain, soaps are fantastic, mawkish, and brazenly manipulative, ritual escapes from diurnal routines that often become routines in themselves.


In Neil LaBute’s new film, Nurse Betty, smalltown-Kansas waitress Betty Sizemore (Rénee Zellweger) has many reasons to desire such escape, including a loutish used-car salesman husband Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart) and an exhausting, thankless job at the Tip Top Diner. Still, Betty remains stubbornly sweet and vulnerable to every kind of abuse, only half-believing Del’s lame-ass lies and focusing her sanguine energies on her favorite daytime soap, A Reason to Love. It’s at just such a focused moment that we meet Betty and learn immediately how well she divides her daily life from her fantasy. Gazing up at the diner’s ceiling-mounted TV, Betty impressively refills a coffee cup to perfection, never once taking her eyes off the screen. Her favorite character/love object is the dashing Dr. David Ravell (played by George McCord, played by Greg Kinnear, yet again flawlessly smarmy). Continually beset by scheming nurses, legal messes, dead wives, and emergency surgeries, he remains steadfastly naive and fictionally hopeful. How fitting, then, that Betty’s coworkers surprise her on her birthday with a life-sized cardboard standup of Dr. David.


It’s not hard to figure how this two-dimensional guy looks good compared to Del, so mean that he throws a neighbor kid’s tricycle down the block and so unthinking that he chomps on Betty’s birthday cupcake without even noting the occasion or her pink-faced efforts to hold back tears. He’s also the kind of asshole who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else around him, demonstrated most forcefully when he tries to buddy up with two new “business associates” (actually, hitmen contracted by a third party to recover some drugs that Del has stumbled on). Imagining himself on a par with these big city pros — Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock) — Del proceeds to deride the ignorance of his fellow Kansans. But when Del says he thinks “Injuns” are stupid, he’s hit precisely the wrong nerve. “My idea of stupid is different from yours,” purrs Charlie, ominously, naming several tribes and observing that, back in the day, they would have scalped Del for such insolence.


At this point, it’s clear that Del’s own fantasy life — at least as grand as Betty’s — will be his ruin. There’s no way he’s going to come out of this deal in one piece. Meanwhile, Betty, unbeknownst to the guys, is watching a tape of A Reason to Love in the back room. She’s intent on the scene — Dr. David looks off into a great, miscolored stage-set sky, and declares, “I know that there’s something very special out there for me!” — but is suddenly distracted by a terrible noise from the dining room: it’s Del screaming as Wesley begins to scalp him. Though no one sees her, Betty sees everything. Duly traumatized, she lapses into a convenient movie-style dementia, believing that she is Dr. David’s ex-fiancée, Nurse Betty. Determined to make it right with him — to be and also find that “something special” — she takes a 1997 Buick LeSabre from Del’s lot and heads to L.A. When the newspapers blab that she’s a Missing Witness, the killers figure she also has the drugs Del stole, and take off after her. The drugs, quite incidentally, are in the Buick’s trunk.


>From here, the movie splits its time between Betty and the hitmen, as she learns difficult lessons about life and Charlie teaches Wesley practical, pithy lessons about murder, like, “Never abandon your instincts,” or, “With three in the head, you know they’re dead.” The parallel plots inevitably collide with and comment on one another, and John C. Richards and James Flamberg’s script (winner of this year’s Best Screenplay Award at Cannes) has been rightly praised for its clever meditations on the intersections of reality and fiction. In L.A., the TV-trained Betty gets a job as a nurse and moves in with Rosa (Tia Texada), who gets them both into a charity gala George is scheduled to attend. On meeting Betty (still believing she’s David’s ex-fiancée), self-absorbed bad actor George is so impressed by Betty’s relentless “method acting” that he and his snaky agent Lyla (Allison Janney) “play along,” thinking they’ll get something special going on the set of A Reason to Love, aside from the usual prefab melodrama. And of course, he imagines seducing fair Betty.


These Betty-in-Lalaland scenes recite what you already know: Hollywood types are scum, escapist media make life bearable for the rabble, Betty’s ridiculous good fortune and stubborn sunniness are implausible but also admirable, etc. And if her relationship with Rosa is only vaguely laid out, this in itself is telling: Rosa’s own efforts in L.A. — she works for a woman lawyer — are hardly rewarded with the bright and enthusiastic miracles that attend Betty’s arrival, and Rosa’s amazement at her new roommate’s crazy good fortune is understandably tinged with resentment. It’s this resentment — or perhaps more accurately, the necessarily race-conscious comparison that triggers it — that might have pushed Nurse Betty into another realm of representation. But the movie backs off before it considers such social and political questions too closely, leaving Rosa to play the “Latina roommate” in a text that’s gesturing toward “diversity” and condemning the racism of its most odious characters (say, Del).


Still and all, and to be fair, the movie mostly takes Betty’s perspective, seeming to hover about as others respond to her strangeness but landing pretty securely on her moral ground. Nurse Betty‘s more provocative points are made — somewhat unexpectedly — through Charlie and Wesley. As they close in on their target, Wesley becomes increasingly agitated, while Charlie becomes enamored of Betty’s apparent perfection. He first projects onto her his own ideal counterpart: she’s the impeccably cunning chick-assassin, outsmarting them at every turn. Then, he comes to see her differently, more out of his own ostensible need than anything else, since, indeed, he has no contact with her, only roughs up anyone who’s spoken with her even by chance. He sees her, alarmingly and probably fittingly, as a polly-pure-hearted paragon, all goodness and light and blond hair. Charlie imagines her in a costume that combines Dorothy from Oz and the fanciest sort of waitress outfit (with poofy sleeves, a long gown, and a tiara), just waiting to be engulfed in his arms: “I’m under your spell,” murmurs Charlie to his apparition, just as Wesley glances over to see him holding air in his arms. Wesley is properly upset at Charlie’s increasing immersion in this fantasy (“Get in touch with your blackness!”), and objects to stopping off at the Grand Canyon (“some hole in the ground”) to indulge his teacher’s spurt of daydreaming. When Charlie insists that some crude act is “beneath” his Betty, Wesley snaps back, “The bitch is a fucking housewife, ain’t nothing beneath her!”


Wesley’s self-protective reprehension is surely understandable: Charlie has stopped playing his usual part, hardcore hitman, and given himself over to a new gig, hopelessly heartsick Romeo. Or rather, it’s the gig for which Freeman is especially well-suited: sensitive, philosophical, and gently mournful. Lamenting that the job in which he once took such pride really only makes him a “garbage man of the human condition,” Charlie comes to a new understanding of himself, reflected in Betty’s perpetual yearning and faith. That Charlie’s journey takes him to such a stock place in U.S. culture — his image of Betty as the queen of waitresses looks a lot like the white-lady-on-a-porch ideal — is telling: his is an old and recognizably righteous code, despite and because of the fact that he kills people for money. Equally revealing is the fact that Wesley remains locked in an ignoble self-image born of gangster and ‘hood movies: eager to emulate and please his mentor, he explains his flamboyant violence by saying, “I’m just trying to make a statement.”


Perhaps ironically, this turns out to be the overriding ethos in Nurse Betty: no matter how small and beat-down (or oversized and arrogant) they feel, all the characters want to ensure their existence has meaning, for someone. It’s also the soap-operatic precept, that the most unreal and trivial-seeming events are inevitably momentous to someone. Still, as the movie reminds you, it can also be the foundation for disastrous self-delusion. Just how it turns out for these characters depends on where they are on a rather standard movie-ethics grid. Sweet thing Betty’s over-the-rainbow dream is predictably touching, but Wesley’s aspirations are designated ugly and base (and often funny, in Rock’s performance). And Charlie’s desires — pictured here as loving and even possessing a white woman — land him somewhere in the middle, imagining escape but also trapped in his own experience. The moral stability he seeks can only be illusory.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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