[Screen It]


(2000) (Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman) (R)

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Black comedy: Two hit men travel across the country pursuing a woman who's mentally snapped and now truly believes she's involved with an actor's soap opera character.
Betty Sizemore (RENEE ZELLWEGER) is a small town waitress in Fair Oaks, Kansas who gave up on her dreams of becoming a nurse due to her abusive, car salesman husband, Del (AARON ECKHART), who treats her like dirt, even on her birthday. Consequently, she lives vicariously through her favorite soap opera, "A Reason To Love," a TV melodrama set in a hospital, and is enamored with the character of Dr. David Ravell, played by actor George McCord (GREG KINNEAR).

When Betty witnesses two hit men, Charlie (MORGAN FREEMAN) and Wesley (CHRIS ROCK), murder Del during a "business" arrangement gone bad, she mentally snaps. As a result, she imagines herself as and then literally becomes Nurse Betty, a woman who jilted Dr. Ravell at the altar several years earlier but now wants to rekindle that love.

As such, she leaves her Kansas town headed toward Los Angeles and the fictitious TV hospital that she believes exists in Los Angeles, with Charlie and Wesley a day or so behind her, hoping to recover the stolen goods she doesn't realize are in the trunk of her car.

While Sheriff Ballard (PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE) and Fair Oaks reporter Roy (CRISPIN GLOVER) try to figure out Betty's disappearance and her involvement in Del's murder, the deranged woman arrives in Los Angles. There, she's befriended by Rosa (TIA TEXADA), a law firm employee who houses and helps her locate McCord.

Upon hearing Betty's elaborate story about her and Dr. Ravel, McCord and the show's producer, Lyla (ALLISON JANNEY), think she's an aspiring actress doing a creative pitch. As they soon get to know her, however, and as the two hit men close in on her, it's only a matter of time before everyone figures out who she really is as everything comes to a cumulative head.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
If one were to equate the cinema with what occurs in nature, most everyone who's new to the industry would be like a newborn animal that must first learn how to stand and take a few wobbly steps before sprinting through this "jungle" where studio heads, critics and moviegoers are as savage as tigers and piranhas in wasting no time in pouncing, shredding and devouring the new should they suffer some career misstep.

Using that analogy, director Neil LaBute is one of those cinematic creatures that's now reached the young adult stage where he's venturing out into the great unknown for bigger and greener pastures. His first film, the vicious but critically acclaimed "In the Company of Men," was a cautious attempt - at least in scope - while his follow-up, "Your Friends and Neighbors," was a more developed and larger scale picture, although it was still somewhat limited in its overall approach.

Now, with his third and most accomplished film to date, "Nurse Betty," LaBute has "grown up" into a full-scale, Hollywood-esque director. An odd, but effective and engaging film, this effort has the look and feel of a major Hollywood production, and if he continues on this progressive developmental course, LaBute will be helming some epic, period film for his next picture.

While some may lament the loss of another independent filmmaker and others may worry that he'll lose his edge and become just another indistinguishable member of the "pack," mainstream moviegoers will now finally get a taste - however subdued - of the director's unique style of filmmaking.

The picture also marks the first time that LaBute is directing someone else's material - namely the screenplay by screenwriters John C. Richards ("Obstruction of Justice") and James Flamberg (his first produced feature script) - that just so happened to win the Best Screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival (LaBute was nominated for the Golden Palm for his effort).

A somewhat odd, black comedy mixture of genres, the story is part "Being There," part hit man thriller, with a dose of "The Wizard of Oz" thrown in for good measure. If you can imagine a Chauncy Gardner type character transported from Kansas to "Oz" - in this case, Hollywood - by a mental maelstrom rather than a tornado induced nightmare - and then being pursued by associates of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson's "Pulp Fiction" characters, then you'll begin to get an idea of what this film is all about.

While it's obvious that the scope of the plot is far more elaborate and extensive than anything LaBute's previously tackled, he manages to hold everything together quite well. He also seems to have put his signature touch on at least some of the dialogue, much of which is often rather brilliant.

The results, while perhaps a bit perplexing, incongruous and/or dark for some viewers' tastes (particularly considering the brutal violence that contrasts the rest of the film's warm, if somewhat twisted aura), are never short of interesting to watch, even if certain elements aren't as explored, explained or taken as far as they could and probably should have been.

For instance, there's the whole bit about Greg Kinnear and Allison Janney's characters thinking that Renee Zellweger's is just an actress taking her creative audition approach a bit too far, when in reality she blown a gasket and thinks she's actually living in the fictitious TV soap opera world and that Kinnear's character is her real lover.

While most of that entire part of the film is handled quite well and is generally amusing in a Twilight Zone/The Truman Show/Pleasantville sort of way, it just seemed to be missing that extra zing in its execution and dialogue that would have made it a classic. What's there obviously works, but I kept feeling as if it could have been just a touch more subversive, dark and/or wickedly humorous.

What isn't developed or explained very well is Charlie's fascination/fantasy/obsession with Betty as he and his younger and more cynical partner trail her across the country. Although his slowly building preoccupation with her is intriguing, it comes off feeling a bit more like a screenplay contrivance than something that character would allow himself to fall into.

Of course, if anyone other than the great Morgan Freeman ("Deep Impact," "Driving Miss Daisy") were playing the character, little of it probably would have worked at all. Yet, because Freeman has that special gift of perfectly playing complex and dignified characters - even if they're not the heroes, such as in "The Shawshank Redemption" -you can't help but admire the people he creates, and that holds true here.

The true standout, however, is Renee Zellweger ("Me, Myself & Irene," "Jerry Maguire") whose performance as the title character should earn her unanimous accolades. Playing mentally unstable or slightly off kilter characters isn't always particularly easy, but many performers tackle them both for the challenge and the potential statuettes that often follow such roles.

The beauty of Zellweger's performance is that she doesn't appear to be aiming for the home run awards fence as is often the case with many performers where you can see that Oscar glint in their eyes while they do their thing. Zellweger doesn't have that here and easily and credibly slips into her character, delivering a knockout performance.

LaBute clearly benefits not only from their lead performances, but also from the supporting takes delivered by the rest of his impressive cast. Greg Kinnear ("Sabrina," "As Good As It Gets") redeems himself from his role in "Loser" with yet another solid supporting performance, while the talented LaBute favorite, Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich," "In the Company of Men"), is great - if entirely unlikable - in his small, but pivotal role.

Chris Rock ("Dogma," "Lethal Weapon 4") mostly does his same old, acerbically annoyed bit as Freeman's younger and impatient partner, but Allison Janney ("American Beauty," "Primary Colors") is very good in her role as the soap opera's producer. Other performances from the likes of Tia Texada ("From Dusk Till Dawn"), Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future") and Pruitt Taylor Vince ("The Legend of 1900") are all solid across the board and surprisingly rather developed for what are otherwise rather small roles.

Although the film's harsher moments often seem to clash a bit too much with its more amusing and whimsical ones (as was the case with Eddie Murphy's "48 Hours" that similarly mixed laughs and brutal violence), and that may put off some viewers not prepared for it, the overall film is rather entertaining and certainly much different than the normal cookie cutter films unleashed by Hollywood. For that reason alone, the picture would get at least decent marks, but throw in the solid performances, often sharp writing and good directorial touch by LaBute, and you've got a film that might not be perfect, but one that's definitely worth checking out. We give "Nurse Betty" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed July 28, 2000 / Posted September 8, 2000

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