Nurse Betty review

Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

After a moviegoing summer of stale mind candy, Nurse Betty arrives as a sister of mercy. The movie is both audience-friendly and audience-challenging.

Under these circumstances, it's easy to fall in love with Nurse Betty. Maybe too easy. Even in its darkest moments, it's a fun-to-watch flick. But it leaves a peculiar aftertaste.

Director Neil LaBute's acclaimed earlier efforts, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, brutally reflected his contempt for his characters. With Nurse Betty, which deals with a more likable bunch of eccentrics, Mr. LaBute's contempt has mellowed into mere condescension. Although the condescension is in itself balanced with affection, you still sense his distance. He views characterization as a tool for verbal and visual wit.

Yet the cast is uniformly superb, embracing the characters and, by extension, the audience. Renée Zellweger's career choices since her Jerry Maguire breakthrough have shown more courage than efficacy. Nurse Betty requires commitment and consistency, and she provides both in savory abundance, never slipping into easy caricature.

Nurse Betty also allows Morgan Freeman to be his most soulful and Chris Rock to demonstrate that he can in fact be a disciplined comic talent. It also gives Greg Kinnear a role he was born to play.

So, just what are these roles?

Nurse Betty presents a gallery of dim bulbs that shine. Betty Sizemore (Ms. Zellweger) is a sweet, trusting waitress in Fair Oaks, Kan. She trusts her oafish husband Del (Aaron Eckhart, grimly first-rate in a role completely opposite from his blue-collar saint in Erin Brockovich). She realizes that their marriage has lost its luster but never suspects that he traffics in drugs and enjoys fast sex with his secretary.

Even more than her worthless husband, Betty trusts the innate goodness of handsome, noble, overworked Dr. David Ravell (Mr. Kinnear). She's right to have faith in his goodness; the poor guy appears to be a sinned-against saint. The trouble is, he's just a character in her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love.

But A Reason to Love gives Betty a reason to live. She escapes the harsh routine of her life by following the soap with religious fervor. And it provides her with an even greater escape.

She witnesses the savage murder of Del by two hit men, Charlie (Mr. Freeman) and Wesley (Mr. Rock.) Traumatized, she invents a life for herself with the context of A Reason to Love's storyline and heads for California under the pretense of being Dr. Ravell's former fiancee.

She borrows the car that Charlie and Wesley seek for their own purposes and starts her cross-country jaunt. The two hit men follow. But Charlie turns out to be the most poetic hoodlum since Samuel L. Jackson found God in Pulp Fiction, and he falls in love with his fantasized perception of Betty. But Betty remains steadfast in her devotion to Dr. Ravell.

Nurse Betty wraps up its fanciful plot rather too patly. The final moments are too tidy, too smugly reassuring. Even in its wildest detours, the movie keeps half an eye on reality. The wish-fulfillment ending seems too much a ploy to placate the audience.

The cast also includes a warm and winning Crispin Glover as a kind-hearted lawman. And Allison Janney makes every sentence count as the soap opera's power-playing producer.

At its best, Nurse Betty is so much fun, you hate to dissect it. The best way to enjoy some movies is not to overthink them.