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NewCityNet In the Company of Renee

Neil LaBute softens up, if you don't count that scalping

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  If "Nurse Betty" were directed by an unknown, its dark comedy and sunny-dispositioned star would probably make it a critics' favorite.

But as Neil LaBute's third feature, after the claustrophobic, malefic intensity of "In The Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," its cool, assured depiction of its characters' fantasy lives, whether sinister or sweet, will only confound the scriveners. But most moviegoers who would see "Nurse Betty" (based on a script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg) will go for its cracked tale of a wronged Kansas wife, Betty (Renee Zellweger), with a wretched car salesman for a husband, mullet-haired Del (LaBute alter-Aryan Aaron Eckhart), whose double-dealings lead to a brutal confrontation with two hit men, one the elder, sage and laconic Charlie (Morgan Freeman), the other, young, wired and impatient Wesley (Chris Rock). (There's a bit of nastiness among the three that no hairpiece would ever cover.) Witnessing this nasty act, Betty loses it and hits the road west, believing she will find Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear, doing fine double duty), the duplicitous doctor who stars on her favorite soap. Mirrors and halls of mirrors ensue as the hit men follow after.

Jean-Yves Escoffier, a cinematographer guaranteed to make a comedy look like a real movie, does wonders with the difficult contours of Zellweger's girl-next-door face, capturing its expressiveness and intermittent radiance throughout. Zellweger can't be underestimated, and she does a wondrous job of capturing the imperviousness of a golden innocent, an unflappable, pout-mouthed angel.

Nor can the 37-year-old LaBute, who demonstrates, as he works with his first substantial budget, that he doesn't lack for ideas about how to move a story along. "Things are good," the always-amiable Chicago suburban resident says, a few days before flying to London to start preproduction on an adaptation of A. S. Byatt's "Possession," an alternately period-and-present-day narrative that will star Gwyneth Paltrow. "I'm getting ready to go again." He leans back on the couch, bright green sneakers clashing with a bright orange shirt and a very pleased smile.

"It's hard," he says of his next film, "You're pursuing letters and journals and things that were not meant to be provocative when they were written. How do you make that dramatic? It has its own set of problems, but it's kind of fun. And it'll be a much different role for Aaron Eckhart, too, no fun haircut."

It's obvious that LaBute is interested in thwarting expectations of what work he might do, he remains true to his roots. While working on "Nurse Betty," he says, "I've been lucky enough to have outlets like [my play] 'Bash' in London and New York and L.A., and now taping it for Showtime, and probably the Gate Theatre in Dublin. That continues to be my uncompromised outlet, the stage, for all that I like."

He'll work with Escoffier again, who shot such movies as "Lovers on the Bridge" and "Good Will Hunting," and who, like LaBute, has not made a period piece before. "That's why I really wanted him. He wouldn't give the full Merchant-Ivory approach. He's not afraid to say what he thinks, but he's very dedicated to the cause. He'll go down with the ship rather than go against what he feels the director should be doing."

He relies on collaborators like the man who took direction from Harmony Korine for "Gummo." "I'm so interested in what the actors are doing, and the script, I knew it needed a different vocabulary than what I had done before. He works simply, and not just for art's sake. We liked the widescreen frame, too. I don't think of moving the camera as much as other people might. I like what happens in the frame. It just affords really interesting compositions, forcing people into corners of the frame. Then when things do move, it's really quite lovely."

The production design lends much to the movie's mood, with interiors looking like 1960s-1970s interiors that had been left alone for decades, then lit softly, in a homely fashion. "[Escoffier] is always building some new light rig, headlights in some piece of wood. There are balloons that cinematographers like to float in the air now, and he was putting on yellow gels for a glow, doing something with chicken wire. It's always great to see somebody as inventive as that. It's all part of the overall look."

Part of the look is a scene set at Grand Canyon in the blackest part of night. "We actually were there!" That's perverse, I had to say, laughing. "It is! You see nothing at night. We were there, we figured we might as well shoot it. The rocks, what you see, would be incredibly hard to build. It's just a funny idea."

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