Screenplay : John Richards & James Flamberg (story by John Richards)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Renee Zellweger (Betty Sizemore), Morgan Freeman (Charlie), Chris Rock (Wesley), Greg Kinnear (Dr. David Ravell / George McCord), Aaron Eckhart (Del), Tia Texada (Rosa), Crispin Glover (Roy), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Ballard), Allison Janney (Lyla)
"And this is all because of a soap opera," the professional killer laments to the young woman. By this point in Neil LaBute's black comedy "Nurse Betty," several people are already dead, and the professional killer, a paradoxical man who is both sympathetic and vicious, is at risk of being captured by the police who are surrounding the apartment. The woman to whom he is talking has been his prey for the last week because he has been under the delusion that she is a brilliant, cold-blooded criminal who has made off with his boss's drugs. He couldn't have been more wrong.
The woman is named Betty (Renee Zellweger), and she is an ordinary housewife who works as a waitress at a small diner in a smaller Kansas town and religiously watches the soap opera "A Reason to Love" each day. Her husband is a slimy used car salesman named Del (Aaron Eckhart, playing the role to truly loathsome perfection). Del, with his square glasses and bad mullet haircut, thinks himself a small-time hustler, and it is he who stole the drugs.
The professional killer, Charlie (Morgan Freeman), and his younger partner, Wesley (Chris Rock), kill Del in his kitchen by scalping him and then shooting him. Unbeknownst to them, Betty witnesses the brutal attack from an adjoining room, and the shock of seeing her husband killed in such grisly fashion sends her into a kind of delusional state of denial. In this state, Betty pulls out of reality and begins to believe that the handsome main character of "A Reason to Love," Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), is her ex-fiancee who she must track down in California.
Thus, the chase is on, with Betty driving the car in which Del's stolen drugs are hidden, and Charlie and Wesley hot on her tail, believing her to be a professional criminal. After staring at a picture of Betty on the dashboard of the car, Charlie becomes more and more wrapped up in his fantasy version of who Betty is, so much so that, at one point, he imagines himself dancing with her on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Charlie's fantasy of Betty is complex, as she is both a dreamy lover and a calculating criminal. Whenever the truth about Betty starts to become clear, Charlie dismisses it by saying, "That's not her style." Thus, in his own way, Charlie is as misguided in his view of reality as Betty.
While Charlie and Wesley bumble through the back roads of Texas and Arizona looking for her, Betty makes it to Los Angeles. While looking for Lomo Vista, the fictional hospital in which Dr. Ravell works, she ends up saving a man's life and is offered a place to live by the man's sister, Rosa (Tia Texada). When Rosa figures out that Betty is in a delusional state of nonreality, she attempts to kick her out of it by taking her to a fundraiser at which the actor who plays Dr. Ravell, George McCord, will be in attendance. But, it ends up that McCord thinks Betty to be an aspiring Method actress whose long, heartfelt speeches about lost love are just a devoted fan's way of expressing her admiration of his work and attempting to get a part on the show.
It is here that the already ludicrous plot of "Nurse Betty" starts to show signs of strain. Although it stretches credulity from the outset, the narrative simply cannot hold together through the end of the film, especially in the way it requires McCord to believe for several days that Betty is simply "staying in character." Surely at some point he would have figured out that the girl is not right in the head. But, perhaps it is meant to be a satirical jab at the egocentric nature of actors. McCord so wants to believe in Betty's infatuation with his professionalism as an actor that he overlooks her insanity. Just as Dr. Ravell is a fantasy of Betty's, Betty becomes a fantasy to George McCord.
Renee Zellweger was the perfect choice for Betty; only a few other actresses have the kind of endearing sweetness that would allow them to make Betty's delusional psychosis palatable. She is both innocent and insane. While at first it appears that Morgan Freeman has been badly miscast as the killer Charlie (he's too subtle and sage-like to be a hit man), as the film wears on and his character comes more into focus, it becomes apparent exactly why he was a good choice for the role. He gives Charlie the weight and gravity of a veteran professional, which contrasts well with Chris Rock's bad-ass, cocky attitude as Wesley, a burgeoning killer who likes his career a little too much. Some of their bickering back and forth rolls like a well-oiled machine, but at other times it feels too forced in its contrast of aged experience with youthful overenthusiasm.
"Nurse Betty" is, to say the least, a strange movie. Director Neil LaBute, known for his two misanthropic portraits of depraved modern humanity, "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends & Neighbors" (1998), would seem an unlikely choice for such material since he's never directed a comedy before. But, then again, "Nurse Betty" is not your typical Hollywood comedy. That LaBute plays up the violence in the material (the scalping scene in particular is quite disturbing, as is a sudden shootout in a hospital parking lot) and then contrasts it against the jangly innocence of Betty's determined cross-country mission gives the movie a purposefully off-centered lunacy. You never quite get a handle on the movie, which it why the jokes work. It's hard to see them coming.
If some of the film doesn't work, that's okay because much of it does. And, the parts that do work do so against all odds. "Nurse Betty" is an odd concoction of black comedy, crime-movie cliches, and social satire. None of the parts are all that great on their own, but once LaBute assembles them into the bizarre whole, the movie takes on a life of its own. It is much like a puzzle that has been put together in the wrong order, but still makes sense in its own illogic. We've seen many of these parts before (the bickering hitmen are right out of "Pulp Fiction," the endearing personal delusions snatched from movies like "They Might Be Giants" and "The Fisher King"), but when combined, they create something that is altogether new.
©2000 James Kendrick