Charlie thinks that Betty is something really special: "a Doris Day type," he says. And maybe she is. But Betty has eyes only for Dr. David Ravell — who doesn’t exist. He’s a character on a soap opera called A Reason to Love.
Betty (Renée Zellweger), a Kansas housewife unfortunate enough to witness the gruesome torture and murder of her sleazy husband Del (Aaron Eckhart), is so traumatized that she believes "David Ravell" is her ex-fiancé, and actually heads to L.A. to find him. Charlie (Morgan Freeman), the hit man who killed Del and later learns that Betty witnessed the crime, is so taken by a winsome snapshot and passages from Betty’s childhood diary that he believes she is a force to be reckoned with, and can’t possibly be going to L.A. in search of a soap opera character, which he believes "would be beneath her." Betty and Charlie each have a companion (Chris Rock and Tia Texada, respectively) who’s angry and mystified by this strange infatuation. "[She’s] a @*&$#%! housewife," shouts Charlie’s partner Wesley (Rock). "Nothing’s beneath her!"
In the end, how you feel about Nurse Betty will in good part depend, I suppose, upon whom you agree with, Charlie or Wesley. If you find Betty as enchanting and remarkable as Charlie does, then you may be relieved and happy when her troubles are over and she is at last able to realize her dreams. On the other hand, if like Wesley you regard her as ridiculous and pathetic, then you will find this movie a contemptuously hateful tale of cruelty and delusion, devoid of any spark of sympathy or compassion.
The latter may be precisely how it was intended. Director Neil LaBute has won both praise and condemnation from critics for the relentlessly misanthropic vision of human nature in his two previous films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors (which he wrote himself). "I hate Neil LaBute," someone wrote recently in the reader feedback area of the Ain’t It Cool News website. "I hate him because here is what his writing says: ‘People are bad. Especially men.’ That’s it. Over and over, and he makes it seem like it’s art. Well, [forget] you Neil, it isn’t."
LaBute didn’t write Nurse Betty, but it isn’t an obvious departure for him. Like In the Company of Men, the story here turns on an innocent and vulnerable young woman whose misguided vision of reality makes her an easy target (almost literally, in the end) for unscrupulous men. Does LaBute feel any sympathy for his victimized women, or merely contempt for their weakness? Are they sweet and gentle so that we will identify with them, or do they exist only as a foil for clever and horrifying dramatizations of how the wickedness of man is great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually?
What makes Nurse Betty different from LaBute’s previous films is that this time the girl finally stops being a victim and acts in her own enlightened self-interest. Since it seems that self-advancement is in LaBute’s films the highest good, this is presumably the best one could wish for her.
Compelling performances, especially from the two principals, make the film eminently watchable. Like Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary, Renée Zellweger provides a sweetly engaging center to a story surrounded by all sides by depraved characters and revolting goings-on. Betty isn’t glamorous like Mary was, but she’s winsome and appealing, with her slightly confused, guileless eyes, broad cheeks, and mouth unself-consciously a bit open, not as if she had anything to say, but more like she’d simply forgotten to close it.
Morgan Freeman, with his world-weary eyes, freckled skin, and deeply furrowed brow, does something perhaps no other actor in America today could have done, at least as well: he brings Charlie convincingly to life as a character of shabby dignity, killer coldness, melancholy resignation, and pathetic idealism. Disgusted at Wesley’s pointless scalping of Betty’s husband Del, Charlie drills him in the professionalism of their trade ("Three in the head, you know they’re dead!"); yet when he finally meets Betty, he stammers like a bashful schoolboy asking a cheerleader to the prom.
Greg Kinnear is credible as George McCord, the soap hunk who’s fascinated by the obvious devotion and complete back-story command of the young woman who addresses him as "David"; he’s just shallow and self-absorbed enough to conclude that Betty is really an actress boldly auditioning for a part on the show. (When George decides to play along, the resulting dialogue is not without bumps and awkward moments, lending a small boost to the scenario’s plausibility.) Chris Rock, who has essentially one performance style, is acceptably cast as Wesley, and Tia Texada hits all her notes as Rosa, an L.A. resident who takes Betty in and helps her look for her ex-fiancé until she learns who he really is. The best supporting player is Allison Janney (TV’s The West Wing) as the ruthlessly opportunistic producer of A Reason to Love.
But despite some funny twists, especially in the climax, Betty’s situation throughout the film is so pathetic that it’s often hard to find the humor in it. Even when she finds "David" — even when George pretends to be David and doesn’t burst her bubble — it’s painful rather than funny, since we know it’s only going to make the inevitable crash that much more terrible (and when it does come, it’s about as brutal as it could possibly have been). The film’s essential hollowness is exemplified by the pointless "revelation" in the climactic scene about Charlie and Wesley’s relationship: a revelation so unrevealing and irrelevant that it makes you wonder if it was really supposed to be a surprise at all or if prior references simply happened to end up on the editing room floor.
The movie has been called a "romantic comedy," despite the fact that (a) the heroine’s climactic transformation involves realizing that not only is the object of her obsession nonexistent, but the actor who plays him, George McCord (Greg Kinnear), is an unlikable scoundrel; and (b) in the end she is alone, taking a sentimental trip to Rome without even a friend, let alone a romantic interest. This librated Betty is presumably over her addiction to A Reason to Love. In the world of Nurse Betty, is there ultimately any real "reason to love"?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.