Nurse Betty (2000)


(director: Neil LaBute; screenwriters: John C. Richards/James Flamberg/ based on a story by Richards; cinematographer: Jean Yves Escoffier; editors: Joel Plotch/Steven Weisberg; cast: Morgan Freeman (Charlie), Renée Zellweger (Betty Sizemore), Chris Rock (Wesley), Greg Kinnear (Dr. David Ravell), Aaron Eckhart (Del Sizemore), Tia Texada (Rosa), Crispin Glover (Roy), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Sheriff Ballard), Allison Janney (Lyla); Runtime: 112; USA Films; 2000)
“It is about daydreaming and wish fulfillment, as directed by Neil LaBute.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bitter-sweet fantasy, in the form of a black comedy. It is about daydreaming and wish fulfillment, as directed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men/Your Friends and Neighbors). This is the first film he’s done that’s not written by him, as it was scripted by John C. Richards/James Flamberg. It is another heartless stab by the director aimed at the heart of mankind, showing them at their stupidest and cruelest moments, one that tweaks the sensibilities about American pop culture and its whimsical effect on the population. It uses the ridiculous banal plot of a soap opera called ‘A Reason to Love’ and manages to get a story that runs parallel. This modern adult fairy tale, told in the style of the Wizard of Oz,” is also set in Kansas and has the heroine, ala Dorothy, leaving that rational state for one of fantasy. The humor comes in how the characters actually fall for the fantasy they are spoon-fed by TV.

Betty (Renée Zellweger) is a naive, rosy-cheeked, cute blonde waitress, and is married to a philandering used-car dealer Del (Aaron). She is a fanatical enthusiast of her favorite soap opera, having fallen in love with the character of Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), who is played by an actor named George McCord. She never misses an episode and identifies solely with nurse Chloe, even knowing the nurse’s lines by heart. As a positive the show has motivated her to want to go to nursing school and keeps her dreaming about a perfect life, something her real-life is far from.

While watching a videotape of her favorite soap opera’s afternoon show in her room, Betty’s husband is involved with a drug deal going down in their living room with a black father-son hitmen team, Charley (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock). When the deal goes bad, Betty witnesses the bloody scalping and murder of her husband, but gets traumatized by what she sees and develops amnesia. It would take a suspension of disbelief to take in what ensued after the murder and not question it.

Betty gets into the character of the soap opera and fantasizes that the dreamboat David Ravell is her real lover she gave up six years ago to marry the slob Del. The time has come, she decides, for her to leave Fair Oaks, Kansas, and to go to Los Angeles to meet her ex-fiancée again. She takes a 1997 Buick LeSabre from her dead husband’s used-car lot which unbeknownst to her has the missing drugs, the hitmen want, stashed in the trunk. The film now plays like a road movie, with the deadly hitmen trying to locate her on a wild goose chase across the country.

The sweetness that is supposed to be derived from the film is to come from the dull-witted but generous characterization of Betty as a people person, wanting to help everybody, whose dream life is about to merge with the actual danger she is in. She lands in Hollywood looking for work not as an actress, but as a nurse at the same hospital her soap opera doctor works. Her chance to become a nurse comes about accidentally when she saves the life of an Hispanic male who gets shot in front of the emergency room and she uses the same procedure on the victim she saw on one of the episodes. The grateful girlfriend of the victim, Rosa (Tia), takes her in as a roommate, and the hospital hires her to work in the pharmacy until they can check her credentials and let her work with patients.

Betty meets David and his soap opera honchos at a publicity gathering, and lives out her fantasy dream by having a whirlwind fling with him while staying in soap opera character all the time. Besides being flattered by the attention he receives from Betty, David sees this meeting with her as an opportunity for him to expand his career and direct an episode with her playing a nurse. David ignores his belief that Betty is either a soap opera groupie or a lunatic, preferring to think of her as an actress from the Stella Adler Method Acting School who is staying in character just to get the part. While she can’t see him as the egotist he is, but can only see him as the part he plays on the soap opera of a talented surgeon interested in saving lives and finding only true love.

While Betty is settling into Hollywood, living out her fantasy dream, the hitmen relentlessly search for her, flashing phony police badges to get a lead on her whereabouts, waving snap shots of Betty around to unsuspecting friends of hers and picking up her trail in Hollywood by beating the information out of a bar owner. The Morgan Freeman character has developed a fantasy about who Betty is and is stuck on the fantasy that she represents what is good and pure about America. Morgan endures the loud insults coming from his angry, sociopath son, who savagely rants at him about his going daffy over a dream. Charlie is at the twilight of his career as a professional hit man, thinking that this is his last job before retirement; and, he has grown weary-eyed about his life as often there is seen sparkles of wisdom coming from his tired expression as when he speaks in a soft and sensitive voice, letting go of his cunning and ruthless nature for a brief respite. He, forlornly, says that “he’s a garbage man of the human condition.”

The film has another gory murder scene, as it breaks the mood of fantasy and returns to a reality that is even more absurd than the fantasy world. The hitmen find Betty in Rosa’s apartment and hold all there in the apartment hostage. But Betty’s hometown Sheriff (Pruitt) and a reporter (Crispin), come to Rosa’s place in search of the missing Betty. At Betty’s, a bloody shootout occurs and everything that can get straightened out does as a result. Then the film tries for the impossible, to return the film to a sweet and gentle ending, by having Betty realize that both her fantasy and real world are able to co-exist. She is invited to appear on the soap opera for 63 episodes, where the TV show gets all the publicity they can muster from her celebrity status following the murder story headlines and she saves the money earned on the show to go to nursing school and then on a trip to Europe.

I don’t think the film has come up with some earth shattering things to say about pop culture except to imply that if you want to be a moron and forgo taste, then join the middle-brow masses and get absorbed in soap operas and forgo any kind of art that makes you think for yourself. If you do, the director is saying, that is not the worst thing that can happen to you, it doesn’t have to kill you. The question for Betty becomes one of living out her childish dreams. She realizes her dreams: of meeting her imagined lover and appearing on his show, of going to Europe, of leaving Kansas for the first time, and of becoming a nurse. But it is never clear what LaBute thinks of this, that is, after smashing the middle-class dream of America as something that is drab. Is LaBute further saying that it is better to have some dream no matter how futile it is than no dream at all? If his other two nihilistic films are examples of his thinking, then I think he is trying to bring that same message into this work; even though, it might not have been intended in this script and doesn’t exactly jive with the sweet ending tried for. I just think it seemed like old hat material that he tried to recycle.

What the film had going for it was some marvelous performances, especially by Morgan Freeman who touched the soul of his complicated character; it had a wickedly carnal performance from Chris Rock; and, from Greg Kinnear, who caught the subtlety needed for his role, to swing back and forth between TV actor and real character. As for Renée Zellweger’s performance, it was good, that is, as good as any of those on the soaps.