Nurse Betty: Neil LaBute Directs Renee Zellweger

In the darkly comic Nurse Betty, his third and most accomplished picture to date, Neil LaBute puts aside the intense explorations of misogyny that dominated his earlier films (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) and immerses himself in a lighter romantic fable that deals with the collision of fantasy and reality.

As a small-town waitress stuck in a bad marriage but determined to make her dreams come true, a terrific Renee Zellweger heads a superlative cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear, in his liveliest performance. With the right marketing and handling, USA release can score big with a clever, vastly entertaining film that should go way beyond the small indie auds of LaBute’s previous efforts.

Changing pace and choosing the kind of fare he would appear unlikely to direct was a smart career move by LaBute, whose first two films suffered from a static theatrical quality. Nurse Betty comes out at a time when critics began to suspect that LaBute may be more of a provocative writer, intrigued by strategies of shock and the theater of cruelty, than a filmmaker capable to tell a story in a visually satisfying manner. New picture demonstrates a quantum leap forward for LaBute as a helmer in command of movie grammar, a feat achieved with the undeniable help of French ace lenser Jean Yves Escoffier.

Working for the first time with a script he didn’t write, LaBute shows good instincts in turning John C. Richards and James Flamberg’s yarn about the intricate link between art and life into an arousing outdoors (also a first for LaBute) enterprise, a road comedy that may have been inspired by The Wizard of Oz (also set in kansas) and takes full advantage of its shifting geographical locales and psychological states of mind.

The first scene shows waitress Betty (Zellweger) to be more interested in the romantic shenanigans of the daytime soap “A Reason to Love” than in serving her customers. The popular TV show offers sheer escapism from her downtrodden reality. Back home, Betty has to endure the company of her no-good car salesman hubby Del (Aaron Eckhart), an abusive man who treats her like dirt. Indeed, when he forgets her birthday, and friend Sue Ann (Kathleen Wilhoite) is also busy, Betty decides to celebrate the event alone and quietly.

One night while watching a tape of that day’s episode, Betty hears her favorite character, Dr. David Ravell, stare at the moon and say: “I know there’s someone special out there for me.” It’s a line that touches a deep chord–she repeats it over and over again–and provides the stimulus to what turns out to be a dauntless, life-changing experience.

Opportunity knocks when a drug deal between Del and two hit men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his easily excitable protege Wesley (Chris Rock), goes horrendously and fatally awry. Del’s dumb racist remarks about Native Americans irritate the duo and one thing leads to another and he gets maimed and shot in a gratuitous violent scene that recalls the Coen brothers’ movies.

Traumatized by the savagery that she accidentally witnessed, Betty chooses the path taken by Mia Farrow’s victimized housewife in Woody Allen’s Depression era fable The Purple Rose of Cairo, entering into a state of mind that allows her to function in a kind of alternate reality. Assuming the soap’s persona of Nurse Betty, she’s set on returning to the love of her life, Dr. Ravell, whom she had jilted at the altar six years ago.

Betty leaves Kansas in a borrowed 1997 Buick, failing to realize that it contains the stuff her husband’s killers are looking for. Her mind is intensely focused on what she perceives as her calling and mission: a reunion with Ravell. Rest of the tale is conveyed through crosscutting between Betty’s personal adventures and the duo of killers chasing her.

The shrewd script offers an amusing variation on the familiar screen types of hit men. Bickering in the manner of The Odd Couple, Charlie and Wesley engage in wildly differing assessments of their prey: Wesley sees her as a coldly-calculated bitch, while Charlie begins to fantasize and obsess about her. In a masterful scene, set in the Grand Canyon at night, the courtly Charlie sees himself dancing with Betty.

What keeps the engines of the saga going is a thick plot with endless twists and turns. Scripters seem to be intrigued by couples, constructing at least half a dozen of them. Betty bonds with a warm and friendly Latina, Rosa (Tia Texada), after saving the latter’s brother from death in a shooting accident outside an hospital. Then there’s the duo of sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and reporter Roy (Crispin Glover), who’re also following Betty.

Center piece, and what gives’ pic its heart, is encounters between Betty and yet another couple: George McCord (Kinnear), who plays Dr. Ravell, and his acidic writer-producer, Lyla (Allison Janney). Mesmerized by her very presence, George thinks that Betty would like to get a part in his soap, only to realize that she’s after something bigger than that. There are so many variations on the notions of whether life imitates art or art imitates life that after a while the lines between fantasy and reality blur.

LaBute has always coaxed terrific performances from his casts, but here he outdoes himself, letting each thesp of the large ensemble shines. Very few actresses can convey the kind of honesty and humanity that Zellweger has–it’s hard to imagine the film without her dominant, utterly credible performance. There’s wonderful chemistry between Freeman and Rock as the father-son killers (a secret revealed in the end), and Freeman shows again that he’s a brilliant actor who can bring nobility and class to any part he plays. Kinnear has done good work before, but he has never looked so effortlessly appealing.

A dizzying array of secondary performers, all playing succinctly drawn characters, give the movie a frenzied, funny texture. Janney, who has some of the wittiest one-liners, is dead perfect as the producer, Tia Texada is sexy and enticing, and Chris Rock is a good foil to Freeman. Other small roles that come to vivid life include Eckhart (LaBute’s quintessential actor, having appeared in all of his pics), Vince as the sheriff, Glover as the intense writer.

Unlike LaBute’s previous films, which were intimate and abstractly set in unnamed cities, Nurse Betty benefits from a large-scale scheme and specific locales. Tech credits are good across the board, particularly Escoffier’s widescreen lensing which is impeccably filled with inventive, often mesmerizing compositions.