Nurse Betty (2000)
Directed by Neil LaBute
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Renée Zellweger, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Tia Texada, Crispin Glover, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Allison Janney.
2000 112 minutes
Rated: (for strong violence, pervasive language and a scene of sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 8, 2000.
For director Neil LaBute's first two pictures, 1997's "In the Company of the Men" and 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors," he showed an affinity for ruthless, acid-minded characters who primarily are only out for the well-being of themselves, and no one else. His views of the human condition were at once startling, yet grim--bravura looks into the darker corners of the world. For LaBute's third effort, "Nurse Betty," he has adapted the highly original screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg into a motion picture that is as sweet as could possibly be, with the title character being one of the most lovable heroines in many a moon. While not without a few shocking moments of bloodshed and murder, "Nurse Betty" is a profoundly earnest and charming film, not to mention LaBute's strongest, to date.
As Betty Sizemore, the lovely Renee Zellweger has found a wonderfully layered role that she was undoubtedly born to play. A coffeehouse waitress in Kansas who is stuck in a dead-end marriage with her no-good, philandering husband Del (Aaron Eckhart), Betty is enamored with the soap opera, "A Reason to Love," as well as the strikingly handsome Dr. David Ravell, played by actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear), and dreams of going to nursing school. She has always wanted to help people, you see, and it wasn't until she got married that she found her future grow cloudy and uncertain.
One night, as Betty quietly watches a recording of the day's episode of "A Reason to Love," she hears noises out in the living room and eavesdrops on Del being threatened by two men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), hired killers who subsequently scalp and shoot him to death. The post-traumatic shock of seeing him getting murdered in cold blood sends Betty into a dissociative fugue in which she believes that the characters on "A Reason to Love" are real people. So she sets off for the fictional Luna Vista Hospital in Los Angeles to find Dr. David Ravell, the man she just knows she was meant to be with, in a borrowed 1997 LeSabre that is, unbeknownst to Betty, carrying drugs in the trunk.
After a summer overflowing with special effects-laden disaster pics and tiresome big-budget retreads, you can always tell when the Fall movie season has arrived with the release of the first great film. "Nurse Betty" is a true American original, high-spirited and giddily entertaining, with a potentially overblown fantasy of a storyline that, through the assured filmmaking touch of LaBute, never strays far from the bounds of realism. The premise may appear to be in danger of growing preposterous at any minute, but it never does, and you follow the film closely and care about what happens so much because of one major factor: the seminally written and performed character of Betty.
Mere written praise cannot, and does not, possibly do justice to how very good Renee Zellweger is as Betty, but to give you an idea, she was able to generate such likability right away that she does something within the first five minutes that was so genuinely touching and heartfelt, it nearly caused me to tear up. With 2000's "Me, Myself & Irene" and, most prominently, here, Zellweger has also proven herself to be quite a funny actress, able to generate huge guffaw laughs simply from an expression or the delivery of a single line of dialogue. Sorely passed up for an Academy Award nomination for her impressive turn in 1996's "Jerry Maguire," Zellweger's time to shine in Oscar's glory may finally, and deservedly, have arrived with her brilliantly nuanced work in "Nurse Betty."
Also a standout is Morgan Freeman, who hasn't been given such an opportune chance to really show his talent as an actor in quite some time. As the worn-out romantic Charlie, who is getting ready to retire from the profession of being a hired killer and who forms an indirect close bond with Betty, Freeman puts his many years of being a performer into his role, successfully conveying wisdom and honesty.
In supporting roles, Chris Rock is surprisingly restrained as Charlie's apprentice, Wesley; Aaron Eckhart appears briefly and effectively as the loser Del; Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince are humorous and sweet-natured as two of Betty's friends from Kansas who set out to find her themselves; and Greg Kinnear is excellent as the charming Dr. David Ravell and the vain, self-important George McCord.
"Nurse Betty" is a masterful human comedy and a sincere drama, as imaginative as it is unpredictable. Without giving anything away, the film does not sell out and go for the obvious, too-neat conclusion, but stays true to the main character and ends the only possible truthful way that it could. "Nurse Betty" is a pure heartwarmer from the first frame to the last, an uncynical motion picture that proves, yes, dreams surely do come true.
©2000 by Dustin Putman