Nurse Betty

on September 08, 2000 by Wade Major
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   The much-awaited third feature from writer/director Neil LaBute is a peculiar but ultimately satisfying black comedy, the austere auteur's first effort with material not of his own creation. Scripted by James Flamberg and John Richards, the film focuses on a naïve smalltown waitress named Betty (Renee Zellweger) who suffers a psychotic break while witnessing her slimy used car salesman husband's (Aaron Eckhart) murder at the hands of two hitmen (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). With her husband's killers in hot pursuit, Betty retreats into a world where she believes herself a part of her favorite soap opera, undertaking a cross-country road trip to rejoin her imagined television beau, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear).

   Though the film is frequently amusing, it is rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, restrained by LaBute's determination to keep viewers from entering too cozy of a comfort zone. Whatever humor the film does possess, in fact, is often combined with violence, cruelty and serious soul-searching, underscoring the film's underlying message about life and its irritating uncertainties. It's an approach which gives way to a fair amount of frustration during the road trip as the film meanders without getting any closer to a resolution or a point. But by the final third, LaBute begins to bring the divergent elements together, giving both his characters and the audience good reason to carry on.

   Fans of LaBute's first two films--"In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors"--may be a bit perplexed by the detour into less acerbic material, a seeming attempt to reach a more mainstream audience. Indeed, while "Nurse Betty" can hardly be called a mainstream movie, it will undoubtedly be deemed more accessible than its predecessors, thanks in large part to the exceptional strength of the four leads. Of particular note is Chris Rock, who turns in his best performance to date, exhibiting a flair for drama and restraint as yet unseen in his comedy work. Starring Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Crispin Glover and Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute. Written by James Flamberg and John Richards. Produced by Gail Mutrux and Steve Golin. A USA release. Drama. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 110 min

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