'Nurse Betty': A Charming, Modern-Day 'Wizard Of Oz'
By by SASHA STATMAN-WEIL, Contributing Writer
Betty Sizemore is the sweetest and most selfless heroine ever-she genuinely wants to be a nurse to help people. In most films, after this set up, the punch line would be trite and boring, but not in Neil LaBute's latest film "Nurse Betty." Betty, played by Renee Zellweger-who is cuter than a set of matching heart buttons-is more loveable than any of the characters in his previous films ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors"). Those movies were so dark I couldn't see my hand for a week after each viewing.

Betty is not really a nurse, but a Fair Oaks, Kan., housewife and waitress, a modern-day Dorothy. Her redneck husband Del (Aaron Eckhart, a LaBute favorite), an adulterous, redneck Buick car dealer, is so downright rotten that he eats Betty's birthday cupcake.

Betty is also an obsessive fan of the soap opera "A Reason to Love," which follows the illegally handsome Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear).

She is watching the show on tape when Del is scalped and murdered in the next room by hit men Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock). Del has done something awfully stupid, though we don't know what yet, and Betty has the misfortune of seeing the end to this brutal affair. As LaBute cuts between the film and the soap opera, we don't know which is more real: the blood or the sexual brooding.

Immediately, Betty goes into post-traumatic shock syndrome-Dorothy travels the tornado-forgetting everything she's seen and convincing herself that she must go west to find her "ex-fiance," a Dr. Ravell who dwells in the film's Emerald city, Hollywood. Betty follows her yellow brick road (the interstate highway) out to California in her red Buick. The car, which she borrowed from her deceased husband's lot, has what Charlie and Wesley are looking for in its trunk.

The film masterfully takes one of the most cliched soap opera tales-that of amnesia and delusion-and turns it into a philosophical dilemma. All the characters are in love with something they can't have, don't know or don't understand. Charlie falls for Betty, who, as he says, has what he does not: "a wholesome Doris Day thing." Wesley falls for a nurse on "A Reason To Love" who turns out to be a lesbian. Betty, of course, seeks Dr. Ravell, a fictional character.

Even characters like the local Kansas sheriff, the newspaperman, Betty's L.A. roommate and Ravell have dreams. In LaBute's previous films, characters who believed in happiness seemed deluded, but here he suggests that only about half of the characters are deluded; the others have just been temporarily duped by supermarket romance novels. As LaBute moves across the spectrum from cynicism towards optimism in his directorial works, perhaps his next film will be a Julia Roberts flick.

In California, Betty wades through the cynicism of L.A. as one would walk through daffodils. She becomes a practicing nurse without qualifications because she spontaneously saved a man's life. She is offered a place to stay because she tells a grieving mother that everything's going to be all right. She meets Dr. Ravell because her roommate wants to see if her story is true. George McCord, who plays Ravell on the soap, thinks Betty insists that she knows Dr. Ravell because she is a brilliant method actor in search of a role. The confusion and romance are thus played out.

It's a shock to see LaBute direct such an uplifting film. "Nurse Betty" is a film in which Freeman, a commanding actor whose garrulous hit man hails straight from "Pulp Fiction," is willing to give a wide-eyed Betty paternal advice in the middle of a shoot-out telling her that what she's really looking for is "inside her." LaBute revels in the scenes of violence and malevolence, but also has a place in his heart for Betty the Innocent, a concoction of fact, fiction and the soaps.

Issue 03, Submitted 2000-09-18 16:49:14