Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Nurse Betty

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM

Nurse Betty is a fractured fairy tale for our cynical time. The plot is intentionally loopy: A Kansas waitress named Betty witnesses the brutal murder of her husband, goes into a form of shock and, believing she’s a character on her favorite soap opera, commences a cross-country pilgrimage to reunite with her long-lost (fictitious) lover. Meanwhile, the killers of her scumbag spouse pursue her from the heartland to Los Angeles.

Director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) isn’t known for his sense of humor, but here he effortlessly blends black comedy and sentimental wish fulfillment with flashes of gut-churning violence; it’s precisely this clash of styles and temperaments which makes this tricky film work.

Screenwriters John C. Richards and James Fleming allow fantasy and reality to actually fuse into something new. When Betty (Renée Zellweger) goes from a meek woman living on the cusp of hopelessness to the determined “Nurse Betty” anxious to reunite with her beloved Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), the saintly soap surgeon, her delusion is almost infectious. Kinnear’s smug actor even takes her for an extreme method actress, so immersed in character that she’s eerily naturalistic.

In fact, it’s Zellweger’s perfectly nuanced central performance which makes Nurse Betty not just funny but poignant. Morgan Freeman’s Charlie is yang to her yin: He’s a wizened hit man trying to teach his hot-headed apprentice (Chris Rock) the rules of their cold-blooded profession.

Both Betty and Charlie are unabashed romantics with little reason to love, and when each visits the Grand Canyon, they see not a marvel of nature but the defining fantasy of their lives. They soar effortlessly on these flights of fancy, not realizing that the hard part is coming back down without a crash landing.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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