Nurse Betty

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

NURSE BETTY

6/10

dir. Neil Labute
scr. John C Richards & James Flamberg (story by Richards)
cin. Jean Yves Escoffier
stars Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Chris Rock
108-112 minutes

Nurse Betty is Erin Brockovich all over again – not a bad picture, but all too clearly the result of an edgy indie director entering the mainstream and “forgetting” to take off his handbrake. There are some funny moments and some bold moments, but not enough of either, and they don’t go far enough in either direction. This material cries out for wild, rough handling – maybe John Waters, or even David Lynch.

Lynch would have blended a much more interesting dish out of Nurse Betty‘s contrasting sweet and sour elements: Labute doesn’t yet have the ability to combine the bizarrely comic and the disturbingly violent within the same movie, while Lynch’s career is all about pulling both off within the same scene. As it is, Nurse Betty doesn’t know what it wants to be – and because it never makes up its mind, it gets increasingly weighed down by implausibility, to the point that virtually nothing that happens is believable.

This wouldn’t be a problem if Labute had tried to make a giddy cartoon fantasy, a confection – but Nurse Betty is grounded very much in the real world, even as its central character escapes into make-believe. Zellweger’s Betty is a waitress in small town Kansas, married to surly auto dealer Del (Labute regular Aaron Eckhart, another reminder of Brockovich). She’s an avid fan of cheesy hospital soap A Reason To Love, with a specially soft spot for the central character, dishy Dr David Ravell (Kinnear). When Del is killed by hitmen Charlie and Wes (Freeman, Rock) following a botched drugs deal, Betty, who witnessed everything, has a mental short circuit and suddenly confuses reality with the fictional world of Reason To Love, setting off for Los Angeles to re-ignite her passion with her ex-fianc, Ravell. Think Purple Rose of Cairo with a hint of The Truman Show.

Betty’s retreat into fantasy is borderline believable, but the film really starts to lose its way when she arrives in California and, through a series of contrivances, not only gets to meet ‘Ravell’ but impresses the actor enough for him to give her the chance to act in A Reason To Love, interpreting her altered mental state as an extreme form of method acting. It doesn’t help matters that we keep switching back to Charlie, whose growing infatuation for Betty clumsily parallels her ‘relationship’ with Ravell. There are tense scenes throughout the film, from the killing of Dell to a final gunpoint standoff, but it’s hard to take them seriously in the absurd context Labute provides, and the closing scenes feel oddly fudged, as if rewritten once too many times.

The scale of Labute’s misjudgements can’t obscure his feat in drawing such an engaging performance from Zellweger – in yet another Brockovich link, at this stage she looks like Julia Roberts’ main Oscar competition. It’s a showcase role for any actress and Zellweger brings a touching vulnerability to the part, only occasionally veering towards making Betty seem slightly simple-minded rather than deluded. But neither she nor Freeman manage to paper over the fault-lines of implausibility that destabilise the movie – Chris Rock is just about the only major character with both feet on the ground, and he’s easily the most unsympathetic figure on view.

Aaron Eckhart has been in all three of Neil Labute’s film, and his presence stirs unwelcome memories of the director’s debut, the searing In The Company of Men. That film was a refreshing blast of sour air, but in retrospect it was much more about Labute’s ferociously economic script – brought to acidic life by Eckhart’s full-bore performance – than directorial or visual flourish. His second film, Your Friends and Neighbours, was watchable, but only just, giving off the stale air of a dramatist’s exercise. Nurse Betty isn’t much to look at, either – it’s a road movie that covers a lot of geographical terrain, but it’s telling that the Grand Canyon is only shown at night, when there’s nothing to see but darkness. It’s as if Labute, working with somebody else’s script for the first time, can’t quite get to grips with all of the film’s different spatial and thematic elements, and although the final scene has hints of the Company of Men-era Labute cynicism (Betty ends up in Rome, copying another waitress who herself had visited the city because of Roman Holiday), it’s all a bit too little, too late.

And whatever praise Labute may reap for Betty, I can’t bring myself to forgive his mishandling of Crispin Glover, who pops up in a minor role as a journalist. Labute deploys this one-of-a-kind oddball as if he’s just any other young character actor, when anybody who has followed Glover’s bizarre career (River’s Edge, The Doors, Back To The Future) would know he’s singlehandedly capable of much wilder, much more unpredictable, much crazier stuff than anything on view in this semi-skimmed enterprise.