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Nurse Betty redeems Neil LaBute

By Gary Susman

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  In my recent review of The Cell, I asked for a moratorium on serial-killer movies. I should have added movies about soulful hitmen. Since Pulp Fiction, we've seen a host of inferior imitators that, like serial-killer movies, claim to educate us about the depth of feeling of these stylish guys whose expression of creativity happens to have an inconveniently lethal side effect. Of course, most soulful-hitmen films are actually less interested in exploring character than in glamorizing murderers, fetishizing violence, and turning cruelty into entertainment.

I'm willing to grant a reprieve, however, to Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, even though it has not one but two hitmen who are direct descendants of Samuel L. Jackson's Jules in Pulp. The movie's not about them so much as it's about the stories we tell ourselves in order to cope with both the mundane and the horrific in our lives. And with its imperturbable, thoroughly decent heroine, the film dares to find goodness a richer, more mysterious, more interesting subject of inquiry than evil.

Betty (Renée Zellweger, using her natural girl-next-door sweetness to maximum effect) is a Kansas waitress who serves as doormat to unappreciative, adulterous husband Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart, who underplays what could have been a cartoonish cliché). She's also a fan of A Reason To Love, a soap opera set in a Southern California hospital whose heartthrob lead is Dr. David Revell (Greg Kinnear). When Betty witnesses a brutal murder, the shock sends her into a fugue state in which she imagines herself to be Dr. Revell's long-lost fiancée and sets off to Los Angeles to reunite with him. What she doesn't know is that she's carrying in the trunk of her car the purloined cargo that occasioned the killing. Naturally the two hitmen, courtly Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and hotheaded Wesley (Chris Rock), set out on her trail.

This premise could easily be exploited for camp, slapstick, or indie quirkiness (especially given the supporting characters played by professional weirdos Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince), but LaBute plays it straight, exploring how these characters might actually react and grow in this situation. Betty's delusion frees her to become a more complete version of herself, not a raving loon or creepy stalker but an assertive, capable woman. Although she's beset by obstacles, her faith in her fantasy sees her through. Her inevitable meeting with David should be a fiasco, but he projects a similar fantasy onto her -- her refusal to break character convinces him that she's a gifted actress pursuing him to get a role on his show. Kinnear gives a supple performance as a cynical hack who's charmed by what he imagines to be genuine creativity and craft.

Grizzled assassin Charlie, too, projects his fantasy onto Betty in reaction to the absurdity of the situation. He imagines her to be a woman of inordinate grace and refinement, then complicates his job by falling in love with his fantasy. Freeman gives an atypically loose and funny performance, but his innate dignity saves Charlie from no-fool-like-an-old-fool syndrome. He has a wonderfully spiky rapport with Rock, whose headstrong protégé proves wiser than his mentor. Yet even Wesley falls prey to fantasizing at an particularly inopportune moment.

Director LaBute's first film, In the Company of Men, was widely misinterpreted and reviled as an endorsement of its characters' calculating misanthropy. Your Friends and Neighbors proved him to be an equal-opportunity misanthrope. In Nurse Betty, the first LaBute movie scripted by others (rookies John C. Richards and James Flamberg), there are flashes of LaBute's trademark black humor and adroit, shocking tonal shifts. But the film is generous enough to give all its characters their due, affording them time to reveal their strengths and weaknesses so as to discourage viewers from passing snap judgments. For the first time in a LaBute movie, violence has moral consequences, and everyone gets what he or she deserves, no more, no less.

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