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Nurse Betty
by Lucius Shepard
December 2000

These days when I see a movie I enjoy, I check myself to discover whether or not I'm overreacting, because in the context of the average studio stinker, a merely passable effort may be mistaken for the exemplary. However, in this instance I'm fairly certain my judgment is in order. Nurse Betty is a modern take on a Frank Capra film, the sort of good-hearted fantasy involving an ordinary soul trapped in extraordinary circumstances that Hollywood used to make with some frequency before they discovered that explosions and snappy tag lines were easier to fabricate than good scripts and strong stories. Though the trappings of the film—hit men, drug deals, a brutal murder, the cult of celebrity—are thoroughly contemporary, the main character, Betty (Rene Zellweger), appears to have stepped out of a more innocent time. Indeed, the majority of the other characters treat her with that head-tilted-to-the-side fondness usually reserved for house pets who have done something so spectacularly cute, it causes them to seem almost human; when they speak of her, they do so with mild wonderment, as if recognizing that she is a savant whose genius is sweetness, whose uncomplaining perseverance is a mark of closeness to God and, one suspects, a symptom of slightly diminished capacity.

By day, Betty works at a small-town Kansas coffee shop, spreading sunshine to her customers, a group that includes Roy (Crispin Glover), a geeky reporter for the local paper who writes about "the history of the bake sale," and a buffoonish yet affable sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vance). Nights, she spends alone, watching tapes of her favorite soap opera, obsessing over handsome TV doctor David Ravell/actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear), while her neglectful husband, Del (Aaron Eckhardt), a used-car dealer with dreams of being a player, boinks his secretary and dabbles in illicit drug deals. When Del attempts to steal a shipment of drugs from some organized crime people in Kansas City, he's visited by two hit men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock). The ensuing interrogation and execution are so bloody that Betty, watching through a crack in the door, is traumatized and retreats into the world of her soap, believing that she was once a surgical nurse at the fictive Loma Vista hospital, where she became the fiancée of Dr. David Revell. The murder proves to be the twister that carries this 21st-century Dorothy away from Kansas. Taking one of Del's cars—the very one, it turns out, in which the missing drugs are hidden—Betty sets out for Oz (LA) to find her lost love. In the meantime, Wesley and Charlie crisscross the Midwest, hunting for Betty, and Charlie, staring incessantly at photographs of the brave little widow, develops an obsession for her that becomes so delusional, at one point he shares a passionate kiss with an imaginary, prom-dress-clad Betty on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Once in LA, immune to and mostly unaware of the violence surrounding her, Betty is assisted in her search for David by Rosa, a beautiful boyfriend-impaired paralegal who takes her in after Betty saves her brother by performing an emergency tracheotomy. Eventually she encounters David—or rather George McCord—at an awards show. George, a poster boy for the self-absorbed (scarcely a reach for Kinnear), assumes that she is an actress auditioning for a role. He marvels at the quality of her work, at the tenacity she exhibits by remaining in character, and this leads to her being offered a part on the show, an experience that snaps the bonds of delusion and brings her back to the real world.

But nothing in Nurse Betty can be said to be real.

John C. Richard's excellent script has constructed a soap opera within a soap opera. The characters in LA and back in Kansas are acted upon by soap opera-ish events. Betty's affliction is a variation on the classic soap opera trope—amnesia—and the pure-hearted, plucky heroine who endures in the face of constant tribulation is the central element of every afternoon story. Considering that all this is masterminded by director Neil LaBute, whose previous films (The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors) were both dark and misogynistic, it's clear that we are being offered black comedy, a film that is a parody of itself, one that mildly celebrates yet at the same time excoriates the form, much in the way of Norman Lear's TV soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. However, in this instance LaBute's intent is overpowered by Rene Zellweger's astonishing performance. A generation or two ago, the role of Betty would almost certainly have been played by Doris Day, the actress who most embodied sexy innocence and pluckiness during the 50s and early 60s. Zellweger is Doris Day on Ecstasy, emitting a powerful vibe of goofy loveable cute, a love ray that turns hit men into philosophers and life-and-death problems into bunny troubles. She bumbles along through the perilous constructions of the plot like a puppy blithely negotiating a rush-hour freeway, and when she mists up and purses her pouty lips in bewilderment, you want to pick her up, take her home, give her a lollypop, and tuck a comforter under her chin. By movie's end, even a hardened cynic who adheres to the belief that a person's dreams will either become perverted or destroy them is briefly persuaded that one's fondest wish will come true if one only perseveres.

The ending, which brings Betty, Roy, the sheriff, Rosa, Wesley, and Charlie together in a psychodramatic mix of blood and physical comedy, is the weakest point of the movie. It's not that the violence is inappropriate, it just doesn't seem to register, its effects muted by Zellweger's blissed-out high beam of a performance. Far too many loose ends are tied up. Justice for the hit men, Roy and Tia hook up, the sheriff proves himself more than a buffoon, George McCord gets his comeuppance, and a last-minute, insufficiently foreshadowed revelation designed to make us relate more sympathetically to Wesley that comes across as messy and inessential. And the epilogue, wherein Betty, financially secure due to her acting stint on the soap, is seen happily touring Rome prior to entering nursing school—it's a bit confusing. We celebrate with her as she walks up the steps of a fountain, swinging her handbag, scattering pigeons to flight, but then we recognize that her triumph over fate may be a continuation of her delusion and has been achieved at mortal cost…well, this is probably the sort of emotional dissonance that Labute was trying for throughout. It surfaces far too late.

These are minor flaws, however. Nurse Betty succeeds, as few recent pictures have, in being both intelligent and funny, and if it fails to promote Rene Zellweger to the star status she deserves, then it will at least be notable as the only movie (the only one I can recall, at any rate) in which Crispin Glover winds up with a girl.