Nurse Betty (2000)

by Lesley Smith


The Lure of Genre

The lure of genre lurks for every filmmaker. So too does the lure of the generic staple — the diner waitress, good-hearted and dream-addled, the working class confidante to cops and criminals, loners and the lonely, men with secrets and women with fears. When, in the first few minutes of a film, we also discover she’s married to an abusive husband who just happens to be a not-so-bright car salesman rutting noisily with his receptionist, the conglomeration of cliches doesn’t raise many hopes, even if it arrives courtesy of stylish auteur, Neil LaBute. And a laborious set up, thick with yet more stock blue-collar characters of circumscribed intelligence, squashes whatever optimism remains. When LaBute and his writers (John C. Richards and James Flamberg in their first produced screenplay) finally pry protagonist Betty Sizemore (Rénee Zellweger) loose from her confined life, it’s as if they also unleash their own considerable talents (the reason-on-speed wit of the script hooked the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes this year). LaBute frames the characters (and actors) with an affection that’s unusual for him, and handles the shifts in tone between road movie, crime caper and satirical disemboweling of soap culture with panache. Only in the closing sequences, when the protagonists are united once more, does the awkwardness of the intro return in a pat, pro forma solution to every stray end. But the journey is almost worth this price.

After witnessing her husband’s murder by two hitmen — the philosophical and courtly Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and the antsy Wesley (Chris Rock) — Betty turns her hopeless crush on the star of A Reason to Love, soap opera hunk Dr. David Ravell (inhabited with relish by Greg Kinnear), into an escapist fugue state where she becomes Nurse Betty, the woman who jilted Dr. David at the altar six long tv seasons ago. Determined to claim her hero the second time around, she heads off to LA. Once there, Betty romances Dr. David by spouting verbatim chunks of the soap’s dialogue and thinks she’s winning her love, but Dr. David — or rather, the actor George McCord — thinks she’s an obsessed method actress relentlessly in character to snag a part. Convinced that she’s part of the plot to defraud their boss, Charlie and Wesley follow Betty’s wandering trail to L.A., in Wesley’s words, “dragging our ass up and down the Louisiana Purchase.” In the process, the once clear-eyed Charlie falls in love with, well, not Betty, but his own pop culture seductress, the imagined version of Betty that Wesley contemptuously refers to as his “wholesome Doris Day thing.” One more illusion joins the stew of misunderstandings roiling in L.A.

cover art

Nurse Betty

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

(USA Films)

In many ways, the script is the genuine star of this movie. The repartee between Charlie (on his last job) and enforcer-in-training Wesley reveals both history and aspiration, a baton-passing between generations that recalls the classic Westerns shot in the same empty terrain of the Southwest and produced in the same dream factory as Betty’s beloved soap. Charlie waxes philosophical about the artistry of completing a job well, while Wesley, prickly with what his mentor dismisses as a “sue everything” attitude, mutters, “No Shit, Shaft” under his breath and frets impatiently for the kill. Equally impressive is the virtuoso dovetailing of Betty’s soap opera dialogue and the responses of Dr. David/George and his production team. Each person acts according to his or her own accurate, if narrow, reading of the situation as it develops, yet each reaction exponentially (and hilariously) feeds the delusions of the other side.

The script also provides a sophisticated vehicle for LaBute’s first genuinely A-list cast. Freeman teases out the considerable poignancy of the stock paternalistic role he often takes — adviser to a younger apprentice (as in Seven). Zellweger renders her somewhat eerie, Norman-Rockwellian prettiness much more appealing as she slips from Betty Sizemore to the initiative-seizing Nurse Betty. Rock, in an uncharacteristically restrained stint, conveys well the suppressed energy and frustration of a man desperate to strike out on his own but too afraid to do so. By turns manic, tolerant, contemptuous, and exhausted, he forms the flattering foil against which Freeman builds his own, perhaps fatal, version of reality. Kinnear, like Zellweger, pulls off his double role, as bird-bath shallow soap actor George McCord and his oily creation, hyperperfect Dr. David Ravell, with hypnotic precision. As George, his eyes are narrower, his smile more avaricious, his shoulders more aggressive. But only slightly.

Perhaps LaBute’s willingness to let the audience close enough to his characters, both psychologically and physically, to appreciate such minor-key modulations, is the movie’s biggest surprise. In both In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute treated his characters as morbidly fascinating exemplars of the species rather than as idiosyncratic men and women. His static camera pinned each specimen aesthetically to a slide and forced it underneath the arc lights until sometimes even the audience turned away from such pitiless scrutiny. And the clunky editing of both movies added to the sense of scientific detachment: when each psyche’s scream was recorded, the camera moved brutally to the next set-up.

But in Nurse Betty, the naturalistic direction and unobtrusive editing slides the audience painlessly from one register to the next. This may be due to a little more artistic detachment on LaBute’s part. This is the first film that he’s directed that he hasn’t written as well, and he reveals, in an interview [at] that he handed over the directing of the A Reason to Love sequences to soap director Shelly Curtis, who brought in her own “soap” camera crew for verisimilitude. The film’s unobtrusive style may also be a result of his collaboration with veteran cinematographer, Jean-Yves Escoffier (also his choice for the upcoming Possession), who provided not only the luscious Paris of Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf, but also the naturalistic-meets-glossy look of both Rounders and Cradle Will Rock. LaBute even told Britain’s Independent newspaper that he made “a very conscious effort along the way not to make it more me.”

Yet the cast of Nurse Betty shares a deep affinity with his earlier dramatis personae as a gallery of contemporary narcissists, all so self-absorbed that they cannot see that the world does not, and will not, except by accident, conform to their view of it. Each lives cozily within his or her own fugue state, their delusions thrown into sharper relief by Betty’s transformation into a decisive, if endearing, monomaniac by the trauma of her husband’s death, and her equally traumatic re-emergence as a contrite (and unnarcissistic) wife and waitress on the set of A Reason to Love. Betty’s self-absorption is a temporary psychological condition: for the other characters, even Charlie, it is real life. Intercutting Betty’s romantic odyssey and the Charlie/Wesley pursuit story, LaBute imaginatively juggles their competing delusions. But once the characters and genres converge on Betty’s temporary home in L.A., he seems to lose interest in anything more than a quick denouement. When the movie stops moving, the director stops caring.

Apparently unable to reconcile, or choose between, the genres he has so successfully satirized, LaBute steals an ending from all of them: the road movie’s shoot out, noir’s touching scene between the man about to die and the woman whose life he’s about to change (think Petrified Forest), the comic crime caper’s revenge of the incompetent, and last but not least, soap opera’s slushy romance. The messy fragmentation reveals, too, the tensions LaBute’s skillful direction has obscured “on the road,” particularly the xenophobic implications of casting two African Americans as the bad guys among a primarily all-white cast. Betty may not go back to Kansas, but this once thoroughly modern director reveals a somewhat sinister nostalgia for a neater, whiter, happier Kansas of the mind.

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