Nurse Betty skips out of the fall gate sounding like a sweet spin on The Wizard of Oz. There’s Renne Zellweger, looking Judy Garland girlish in a blue-and-white-checked dress and red Keds. She’s playing Betty Sizemore, a Kansas waitress who follows the yellow brick road to Hollywood to find Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), the Prince Charming of her dreams. Hold the oohs and ahs: John C. Richards and James Flamberg, whose script won a prize at Cannes, aren’t into Kansas corn. Neither is Neil LaBute, the writer and director of two stinging social satires (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors), who doesn’t follow any road unless it takes a few perverse twists. LaBute didn’t write Nurse Betty, but his fierce comic touch is, luckily, all over this movie.
With LaBute at the helm, no way is Betty going over the rainbow unless she steps in a mess of cold shit first. Look at her life: Betty is stuck in a dead-end marriage to Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart), a car-selling, drug-dealing, wife-abusing pig. She escapes into videotapes of her favorite daytime soap opera, A Reason to Love, and imagines she’s playing nurse — Betty always wanted to be a nurse — with Dr. David.ice dream. Enter the nightmare. While Betty quietly watches TV, Del brings home Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), strangers who don’t act like Munchkins. No wonder. They’re hit men, and plenty pissed at Del for stealing drug money. They damn near scalp Del before they kill him. Betty, peeking from behind a door, witnesses the carnage. She hops into Del’s Buick and heads for California, the hit men on her tail along with the town sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a local reporter (Crispin Glover). Trauma, you see, has put Betty in a fugue state, a combo of fright and amnesia. She thinks she’s Nurse Betty now, ready to reunite with Dr. David and live happily ever after.
The trauma of watching Del get bloody also shakes up some audiences, who can’t figure what the hell LaBute is doing mixing gore with giggles. You can’t not laugh witnessing the terrific teamwork of Freeman and Rock. But what’s with the plot jerking all over the place? When Betty hits L.A. and meets actor George McCord, who plays Dr. David — Kinnear is a slimeball wonder in both roles — the movie is a love story. Betty loves him; he loves getting his ego stroked. Then it’s a satire of TV, with George and producer Lyla (The West Wing’s wonderful Allison Janney) mistaking Betty’s delusion as a trick to get on the tube. Then it’s a tender look at the toll taken on Betty when reality blurs into fantasy. And why does aging Charlie keep mooning over Betty when Wesley tells him to “kill the bitch”?
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, what LaBute is doing was called being creative, dodging cliches, experimenting. Sure, he stumbles along the way. But let’s welcome his war on formula instead of letting it drive us into a fugue state. LaBute, aided by ace cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier (Good Will Hunting), navigates his first road film with frisky finesse and gets pitch-perfect performances from a cast with class.
Zellweger is a dream — funny, touching and vital in a role that lets her talents blossom. The heart of the movie is with Betty and Charlie, an oddball choice that pays off thanks to the actors. As ever, Freeman delivers miracles; he’s as good as it gets. He shows us glints of elegance in Charlie. Watching Betty from afar, in ways that recall Dana Andrews’ obsession with the painting of Gene Tierney in the classic film noir Laura, Charlie awakens long-dormant feelings. In a scene of piercing delicacy, he even imagines dancing with Betty. When the two finally connect, all too briefly, their bond is palpable. Freeman and Zellweger have turned the stuff of farce — the hit man and the housewife –into an expression of true romantic yearning. Nurse Betty keeps springing mad-whacked surprises. It’s something special.