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NURSE BETTY

by: James Berardinelli

During the course of Nurse Betty, title character Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger), who hails from Kansas, is once referred to as "Dorothy." This is an entirely appropriate connection, since director Neil LaBute's third feature (in the wake of In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors) is a modern-day fairy tale about a woman who goes on an improbable, fantastic journey, and finds herself at the end of the yellow brick road. But, because LaBute is far from a conventional filmmaker, Nurse Betty is less like a trip through Oz and more like a view of Alice's Wonderland, but through a glass darkly.

Nurse Betty's two hallmarks are originality and star quality, both of which combine to draw the viewer through the film's occasional rough spots. LaBute has put together an offbeat production that combines elements of fantasy, drama, satire, and black humor. Unlike far too many of 2000's motion picture crop, this one does not seem to have been pressed using a cookie cutter. It has an unusual tone that successfully encourages the willing suspension of disbelief and allows one to become involved in a story that, at least from the outside, is patently absurd.

Betty is a part-time housewife/part-time waitress living in a small, dead-end Kansas town. She's sweet, oblivious, and innocent, and allows herself to be taken advantage of by everyone around her, especially her philandering husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart). Because her own life is so empty, Betty is a fervent fan of the soap opera A Reason To Love, where her favorite character is Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). However, aside from getting her daily soap fix, making dinner for her husband, and serving coffee to regulars like the local sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and the town's only reporter (Crispin Glover), Betty doesn't have much to do.

Then, one day, a couple of strangers named Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock) arrive at Del's Used Car lot, looking to do business with him. The end up back at his house for drinks, but things get ugly and Del doesn't survive. Unbeknownst to Charlie and Wesley, Betty sees the entire incident. Post traumatic stress from witnessing the murder pushes her into a half-fantasy world where she suddenly believes that characters from A Reason To Love are real people, and that she was once engaged to David Ravell. Armed only with her shaky sanity, she heads for Los Angeles, where her lost love "lives." Meanwhile, Charlie and Wesley, convinced that Betty could be a threat to them, start to search for her.

LaBute's approach could have been more scathing, but, in a surprising show of restraint (surprising considering how uncompromising his previous films were), he avoids the contempt of characters that is frequently demanded for a vicious parody. Instead, he opts for more character identification and a higher dramatic quotient. He wants us to like and understand these individuals, especially Betty. This leads to fewer laughs than one might expect from something being loosely identified as a comedy, but a better overall balance.

Soap opera fans, always an easy target, are treated almost kindly (although the screenplay calls them "people with no lives [who] watch other people's fake lives"). And the pseudo-soap clips have the right mix of slight overacting and melodrama to make them believable. From what we see of A Reason To Love, it would be perfectly at home on any of the TV networks' afternoon schedules. However, the primary target of LaBute's satirical saber, the artificiality of Hollywood, is repeatedly skewered. Nurse Betty argues that the people in the entertainment business are so self-absorbed that they can't tell the difference between an overzealous would-be star and a mentally disturbed individual.

Nurse Betty offers Renée Zellweger an opportunity to shine like she hasn't since she announced herself to

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