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Charming, but watch out for the blood

'Nurse Betty' -- sick in the head


(CNN) -- Writer-director Neil LaBute's first two films are as vicious and misanthropic as anything you'll ever see. "In The Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998) are beautifully performed, and they're driven by sharp, biting dialogue.

But don't think that LaBute is courageous simply because he's willing to endlessly rub your nose in things that you'd rather not contemplate. His films are an accomplishment of the will rather than the intellect. All you have to do to celebrate cruelty is make a movie that celebrates it. The end product may stand apart from the pack, but there's not much to be learned from vindictive, sexually-abusive creeps, except that they're extremely unpleasant to be around.

LaBute's latest picture, "Nurse Betty," is an intentional change of pace, although not the complete 180 degree turn that press releases are trumpeting. First-time screenwriters John C. Richards and Flamberg have created a comedy about identity and self-delusion that contains enough brutal, distastefully intimidating moments to keep LaBute's morbid cult happy.

This time, the inhumanity is supposed to be tempered by a compassionate lead character who nevertheless has a couple of hit men on her trail, the kind who are willing to pull out a huge hunting knife and literally scalp you to make a point.

LaBute, as always, has put together a great cast. All-American girl Renee Zellweger plays Betty, an unhappily married waitress in Fair Oaks, Kansas, who dreams of romancing her favorite soap opera star, George McCord (Greg Kinnear.) McCord plays Dr. David Ravell, a brilliant, dedicated surgeon on a popular program called "A Reason to Love."

Betty clings to the show as an escape from life with her car-dealer husband, Del (LaBute mainstay Aaron Eckhart.) Del is a self-centered pig. He screws around with his secretary at the car dealership, eats like an animal, and casually mistreats sweet, giving Betty. Eckhart supplies perhaps the most satisfying performance in the film, but you'd better not get too attached to him. He's about to be slaughtered for your amusement.

Zellweger is lovely, well-cast

One evening, Betty is watching a videotape of "A Reason to Love" when Del enters the house with a couple of strangers in tow. She'd rather not be bothered by them, so she quietly closes the door and focuses on the tube. It turns out that Del's new buddies are Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), a pair of contract killers who've shown up to collect some information.

The two men act chummy with Del for a little while, but things eventually turn sour. Soon, Del is trussed up in his chair, with his socks crammed into his mouth. Wesley - who's an out-and-out psychopath - cuts a bloody slit along Del's forehead, then peels back his scalp. Charlie, the more clear-thinking of the two killers, is infuriated by Wesley's pointless cruelty. He mercifully puts a couple of bullets into Del to stop him from screaming and spewing blood all over the living room floor. After a friend of Betty's drops by and discovers the body, a blundering sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) shows up to investigate. He's accompanied by an oddball reporter from the local newspaper (Crispin Glover, who, thankfully, isn't around all that much.)

graphic Renae Zellweger has tackled Betty

Now it's time for Bridget
Movie trailer for 'Nurse Betty'

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Betty saw the whole thing, but she's pushed the event from her memory. When she's interviewed by the police, she acts like nothing happened. Rather than mourn Del, she packs her bags, gets in his car, and heads out to California where she's convinced that she'll meet up with her "ex-fiancee," Dr. David Ravell. Unfortunately, David is a TV character, and George, the actor who plays him, doesn't even know Betty.

That doesn't stop her, though. Her deck has been temporarily re-shuffled, so she tells everyone she meets during her journey westward that her love awaits in California. Charlie and Wesley, who were served by Betty at the diner the day that they killed her husband, take out after her. They think she's got something with her that they're looking for, and they're also afraid that she can identify them. So now LaBute breaks the movie into Betty's search for Dr. Ravell, and the killers' search for Betty. Along the way, Charlie starts pining for Betty. He sees in her a kind of open-faced humanity that's in short supply when you're a hit man. Wesley gets more and more irritated as Charlie imagines romancing the woman whom they hope to kill.

It would be nice to report that something more than sporadic chuckles arise from all of this.

Zellweger is lovely, and she's very well-cast. Betty's sunny, can-do optimism is amusing when she's not in close proximity to cold-blooded murderers. You fear for her fragile heart just as much as you worry about her mental health...or her health in general, since she's marked for a possibly horrifying death. Freeman is just as good as he always is, and Kinnear, though he has a small role, is quite adept at portraying smarmy pretty boys. He's a long, long way from his debut gig on "Talk Soup." George's initial meeting with Betty at a fancy Hollywood party is the highlight of the film. It's legitimately funny and bizarre at the same time.

But Betty's belief that she used to be a part of George's life only continues because the people she meets seldom make an attempt to point out that she's in love with a TV character. To a degree, the movie is reminiscent of "Being There" (1979), except that the people who can see through the empty vessel at the center of the picture never bother to point it out to anybody. Betty even secures a job as a nurse at a Los Angeles hospital, with no medical training, no skills, and no references. What a stroke of luck!

There's even a weak link among the actors. Rock is a brilliant, brave comedian, but he's a pretty poor screen performer. His dead eyes seem to be staring at an invisible wall that lies just beyond his nose. He's just delivering dialogue and hoping to survive the movie with his dignity intact. It doesn't help that Wesley is as despicable as any of LaBute's dramatic characters. The glee he takes in confronting people and/or killing them is plain nasty. You can't camouflage it with a handful of amusing punchlines, or Wesley's unexpected obsession with the same soap opera that Betty watches. Rock's lack of depth as an actor seals the deal. He may one day develop the proper skills to play a fully-realized character, but he's way out of his league at this point.

LaBute also has no reason to linger on Del's grotesque murder the way that he does, except to get people talking about how awful it is. He would almost surely argue that you have to see the traumatic event in order to understand Betty's unconscious decision to erase it from her memory. But you can shoot a scene a million different ways. A few blood-curdling screams while you watch Betty peer through the doorway would have sufficed. LaBute, for all his ability, simply can't stop himself from pandering to his core audience. For a man who deals with such adult subject matter, he can be incredibly, irredeemably adolescent.

Everybody is obviously supposed to carry on about the juxtaposition of comedy and bloody violence in "Nurse Betty," but it's not an especially inspired accomplishment. There's profanity, characters ridiculing each other at every turn, shootings, beatings, and one scalping. This is a great date movie if you happen to be romancing a butcher. Rated R. 117 minutes.

'Me, Myself & Irene' is taste-free comedy
June 23, 2000
Review: With 'Friends and Neighbors' like this, who needs enemies?
September 9, 1998

Nurse Betty

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