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With: Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Tia Texada, Crispin Glover, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Allison Janney, Kathleen Wilhoite, Elizabeth Mitchell, Susan Barnes, Harriet Sansom Harris, Sung Hi Lee, Laird Macintosh, Steven Gilborn, Jenny Gago, Sheila Kelley
Written by: John C. Richards, James Flamberg, based on a story by John C. Richards
Directed by: Neil LaBute
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/11/2000

Nurse Betty (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Nurse' Snatcher

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's all in the neck. Renee Zellweger can do wonders with hers. She crooks it to one side when she's happy or confused, and tenses it up when she's anxious. In the new film Nurse Betty she and her neck give one of the very best performances of the year 2000.

In Nurse Betty, Zellweger plays a spaced-out waitress who spends her time watching and dreaming about her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love, in which George McCord plays Dr. David Ravell (both played by Greg Kinnear). When her husband (Aaron Eckhart) is brutally killed by two hitmen (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), she blocks out all reality and heads West to meet her fictional doctor.

Zellweger, with her cuddly, puffy, sweetness is the only actress around who could have played this role. Most other actresses are either too aerobicized and chiseled or too hip and ironic. Sweetness seems to be in short supply. Thankfully, Zellweger not only has it, but talent and skill as well.

I focus on Zellweger so much because most of Nurse Betty is carried by her. But, as written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, and directed by Neil LaBute, the rest movie is nothing to sneeze at either. Former playwright LaBute is also the talent behind In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), two very tough movies about truths in human behavior. Nurse Betty does contain some of those same observances, but it's packaged in a more lightweight romantic comedy. This is LaBute's first time out not writing his own screenplay, though he must have recognized some of his own tendencies in Nurse Betty, which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes.

One way that Nurse Betty sets itself apart from most fluffy romances is with Morgan Freeman's character, a career hitman, who prides himself on his crafty working methods. In order to figure out where Betty has gone he tries to think like she thinks--and in doing so, he becomes as obsessed with her as she is with her doctor. (One scene--in which Freeman fantasizes about dancing with and kissing Betty--apparently upset a few people who stormed loudly out of the theater.)

The other twist in Nurse Betty is that Betty actually becomes a better person while under her delusion. It gives her the strength to leave her no-good husband (with his horrible mullet haircut) and to actually save a patient's life using the "nursing" knowledge she gleaned from television. As a result, the movie is much darker than it appears on the surface. In some ways, LaBute is being even more challenging here than with his earlier movies, which did not disguise their intent.

As a filmmaker, LaBute is the real thing. Even when not being a brilliant writer, he's clever with actors and he has an excellent visual sense. One small scene early in Nurse Betty nearly had me applauding. Eckhart is cheating on Betty with his secretary. He pounds on top of her, and we see the marks that her fingernails and high-heeled shoes have left on the wall during many, many other secret meetings. Not only has Eckhart been cheating for a very long time, but he's so unimaginative that he's been doing it the EXACT SAME WAY every time. LaBute also creates a memorable image with Betty walking around carrying two items received at her birthday party; a life-size cardboard cutout of Dr. David and a single, symbolic birthday cupcake.

Nurse Betty represents a rare duality. It's a movie that I feel comfortable recommending to both film buffs and non-film buffs alike. It's also a strong contender for one of the best films of the year.

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