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'Nurse Betty': Pathologically Funny

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2000


    'The Watcher' Renee Zellweger in "Nurse Betty." (Bruce Birmelin/USA Films)
"Nurse Betty" proves one thing. In addition to sick and twisted, Neil LaBute can do funny. Who knew?

Just don't expect "There's Something About Betty" from the dark auteur of such psychodramas of delicious dysfunction as "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and the recent stage play "Bash." LaBute's works lay bare the everyday pathology of human relationships like a frog on a dissection tray, but here the filmmaker's scalpel pokes at our collective funny bone instead of at the reptilian brain that throbs inside the conscience of modern man.

Don't worry that he's gone completely soft, though. Even as "Betty" sings optimistically of love, starting over and dreams that come true, it does so from the vantage point of a world filled with murder, mayhem and mental illness. From this latter-day Greek tragedian, one should expect nothing less.

"Betty's" departure in tone from the earlier movies-both essentially yuck-free zones poison-penned by LaBute-is due to the wildly imaginative screenplay, which springs from the fevered minds of John C. Richards (a former stand-up comic, naturally) and newcomer James Flamberg. The pair shared the writing award for "Betty" at this year's Cannes International Film Festival.

The premise itself is a whopper. When wide-eyed midwestern waitress Betty (Renee Zellweger) witnesses her mullet-headed husband Del's (Aaron Eckhart) grisly demise at the hands of bickering hit men Charlie and Wesley (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), the post-traumatic shock sends her into a dissociative state in which she imagines that she's a character on a soap opera-or, more precisely, that the soap opera is reality itself. Quitting her job at the Tip Top Diner, she hops into a nearby Buick LeSabre (the decedent, conveniently, was a used-car dealer) and heads for Los Angeles, where the fictional hospital of Betty's favorite sudser, "A Reason to Love," is supposed to be located, hoping to be reunited with her "ex-fiance," the dashing, dimpled Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). Because the trunk of Del's LeSabre happens to contain 10 kilos of a mysterious white powder (not to mention the fact Betty can ID the button men), Charlie and Wesley take off after her.

But here's where the film really starts to get interesting. Arriving in L.A. in a starched nurse's uniform that would be more appropriate at a costume party than a working E.R., Betty finagles a job in the pharmacy of a local hospital when she uses her TV-based medical expertise to save a shooting victim. Then she talks her way into the cast of "Reason" when her ability to quote dialogue from eight seasons ago and stay in character convinces writer-producer Lyla (Allison Janney) that she's not some loony-tune fan but a method actress improvising an audition. Meanwhile, somewhere out in the middle of middle America, Charlie finds himself falling in love with Betty, based only on a torn snapshot of his quarry he keeps on the dashboard.

Far-fetched? Yes. But Richards and Flamberg's script never takes it so far over the top it can't find its footing again, even when Charlie hallucinates that he's dancing with Betty next to a moon-lit Grand Canyon. LaBute also keeps a tight rein on the proceedings which, while preposterous, are well-rooted in simple human nature: our need to forget our own unpleasant lives and our willingness to believe anything except our eyes ("denial," some call it).

As Betty, Zellweger brings an earnestness to a role that's as corny as Kansas in August, but that's vital if we're going to accept her delusion. Almost nobody she encounters writes her off as a head case. They buy it because she does, and because she gives us no choice.

Part magical realism, part parodistic film noir, part twisted Cinderella story and part indictment of popular entertainment, "Nurse Betty" is this year's "Being John Malkovich"-an utter original with a little something to say and a way of saying it that manages to be at once delightful and bilious.

NURSE BETTY (R, 112 minutes) - Contains a sexual encounter, brutal murder, obscenity, surgical procedures and gunplay.Area theaters.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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