*** Nurse Betty (2000)
Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring:  Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Tia Texada, Crispin Glover, and Pruitt Taylor Vince.

        It's never a good sign when I start forgetting a movie only two days after I've seen it, and it's too bad that a film as enjoyable as "Nurse Betty" falls into that unfortunate niche.  Still, at least while watching "Nurse Betty," it's easy to overlook the fact that such trite entertainment has little lasting value.  In other words, director Neil LaBute's latest film is such a funny, well-acted gem, that not even the screenplay's central failings could ruin it for me.

        Stuck in a dead-end life, it's soap operas that get Kansas waitress Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger) through her humdrum existence.  As if that isn't bad enough, Betty's husband, Del, (Aaron Eckhart) has been cheating on her and is also involved in a shady drug deals.  It's not long before fate brings bumbling hit men Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock) to the Sizemore's doorstep.  Betty is absorbed in her her favorite show "A Reason to Love," when her husband accidentally angers the trigger happy duo.  Hearing the ensuing ruckus, Betty happens to look into the next room, only to witness her husband's gruesome murder.  Traumatized by the incident, Betty looks back at the TV screen and suddenly believes that the soap's characters are real and that she was once engaged to the show's star, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear).  Finally discovering her "destiny," Betty heads to California with the hopes of reuniting with her long lost love:  David Ravell.  However, it's not long before the hit men get on her trail. . .

        As written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, "Nurse Betty" is almost as schizophrenic as its main character.  Clumsily juxtaposing Betty's plight with the bounty hunters' assignment, the film's screenplay never really finds a satisfactory way to tie up the two divergent stories.  Although each account is good enough to stand on its own, the two just don't fit together, if only because they are so vastly different.  Never able to stick with one narrative for more than ten minutes, the film's screenplay fails to give either plot a chance to lift off.  In a way, this indecision kind of contributes to the film's zany mood, but as unique as it is, a quality that makes a film this uneven can hardly be labeled a strength.

        On a more positive note, what the film's screenplay lacks in cohesiveness is amply made up by a surprisingly high laugh-to-gag ratio.  Often downright hilarious, "Nurse Betty" finds a wonderful source of humor in everyday situations.  Occasionally relying on serendipity, "Nurse Betty" is not always a terribly realistic film, but if taken on its own level, it is certainly a believable one.  Knowing that truth can equate comedy, Richards and Flamberg provide the film with their wonderfully perceptive brand of comedy.  Attacking the television industry and lazy skeptics with satirical barbs, it's a shame that the film's targets aren't exactly fresh anymore, but Richards and Flamberg give them such an authentic treatment that it's hard to argue with what they have to say.

        In all fairness, the film's problems have little to do with the esteemed Neil LaBute, considering that this is the first film he has directed from someone else's script.  As a follow-up to his masterful "In the Company of Men" and the under-rated "Your Friends and Neighbors," it's quite odd that this socially conscious director would be attracted to such a fluffy little diversion.  Obviously a change of pace from the so-called misogyny of his previous two films, whatever wrong-headed controversy LaBute has come under is soon to be forgotten; if anything "Nurse Betty" is as feminist a modern parable as "Thelma & Louise."  It's an interesting choice, and an interesting step in the development of this promising young director.  At least on a technical level, "Nurse Betty" is a logical extension of LaBute's career.  By using actual locations and a more complex visual scheme than usual, LaBute makes the most of his limited budget.

        It's hard to fault LaBute's astute direction, but for what is essentially a subtle comedy, LaBute gives "Nurse Betty" some uncomfortably dark overtones.  Occasionally they even rise to the surface--often in the form of shockingly graphic spurts of violence--and such depth just doesn't suit the otherwise trifling material.  Normally I wouldn't object, but in a film as lightweight as "Nurse Betty" these dramatic pretensions just don't mesh with the rest of the content.  In a film that's already suffering from an identity crisis, these themes add more confusion to the jumble.  It's nice to see LaBute trying, but his efforts are ultimately defeated by the screenplay's inherent simplicity.

        Ultimately, though, the glue that holds the film together is Renée Zellweger.  While her breakthrough performance in "Jerry Maguire" was certainly laudable, in retrospect it seems like she was just preparing the world for her remarkable turn in "Nurse Betty."  It's always a bold move to take on a "psychotic" type of role, but to play the part convincingly, while making the character likable at the same time is even more of a task.  That she combines the two perfectly is only a testament to her enormous talent as an actress.  Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Aaron Eckhart, and Greg Kinnear also do some fine acting work, but it is really Renée Zellweger who steals the show here.

        It's certainly not one of the more memorable pictures of the year, but on its own terms "Nurse Betty" works quite well.  For a modest entertainment during this Fall season, it's hard to match a film as one-of-a-kind as "Nurse Betty."

Rated R for some strong violence, profanity, and mild sexuality.
My Guidelines:  13 and up. 1