"Nurse Betty" (IMDb listing) is skillful, refreshing, entertaining and horribly doomed.
Genre-busting films tax a studio's marketing department, but to their credit these departments usually find a hook to sell to the masses. "Pulp Fiction," the biggest genre-buster of the last 10 years, was successfully pitched as a stylish crime caper, and moviegoers flocked to see it. There'll be no such luck for "Nurse Betty" because the marketing of this film and the reality are diametrically opposed. The trailers, ads, and promo materials paint this as a peppy romp but the film's true colors reveal it to be one of the darkest comedies ever made.
Not that dark is a bad thing. "Betty" is an original that straddles genres, and if audiences were properly prepped they'd appreciate the filmmaking. As it stands, "Betty" is pissing people off. Moviegoers emerging from the theatre look like disgruntled consumers, angry because their rollercoaster ride was actually a shadowy tour through the haunted house.
The marketing department's failure is tragic because "Betty" is the work of a skilled director. Neil LaBute has been earning accolades, but not grosses, since the 1997 release of "In the Company of Men." He has a reputation for shining a spotlight on the seedier side of humanity, which has been well received by a small audience but isn't the kind of thing Disnified moviegoers are used to viewing. "Betty" was supposed to be a crossoverand in many ways it is an audience pleaserbut it's not going to vault LaBute into the mainstream. Moral ambiguity and unexpected violence aren't ingratiating to the general public.
"Betty's" violence will be harped upon, but looking at this film objectively it becomes apparent that the violence is a necessary plot device. When a kind Kansas homemaker named Betty (Renée Zellweger) sees her worthless husband scalped by two hitmen (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) in her living room, the shock pushes her into a dreamworld. If she hadn't witnessed such a horrific murder, her mind wouldn't have flipped and she never would have embarked on the journey that's central to the plot.
And what a plot it is. Writer John C. Reilly mixes a potential powder keg of soap operas, drugs, love, and redemption, but instead of blowing it into the ozone, he deftly weaves these threads into something that's almost believable. After Betty's husband, Del, becomes the Last of the Mohicans in their living room, Betty desperately searches for something that'll let her cope with the horror. Turning to the television, her eyes lock onto the face of her favorite soap opera actor, George McCord (Greg Kinnear), causing her to snap into an alternate reality where she believes she's the long-lost fiancée of her beloved Dr. David RavellMcCord's alter-ego on the "General Hospital" clone "A Time to Love."
Driven by her false love, Betty embarks on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles, where she intends to find Dr. Revell and win him back. Betty is pursued by the two hitmen, who seek to off the witness to their crime and retrieve the bags of cocaine hidden in the back of Betty's car. The story takes a Gumpian turn as Betty successfully wiggles her way into L.A. and soon encounters the love of her life at a charity benefit. McCord, whom Betty calls "David," is so moved by Betty's diligent method acting (she's always in character) that he rallies for her addition to the "A Time to Love" cast.
While Betty's dreamworld continues to expand, hitmen Charlie and Wesley draw closer to L.A. Wesley, played by Rock, is a hot-headed, borderline sociopath who spends his free time eating junk food and lusting after a nurse character on "A Time to Love." His partner, Charlie (Morgan Freeman), is a complex intellectual who sees himself as the consummate professional even though his profession's mantra is: "Boom, boom, boom. Three in the head, you know they're dead." Much to Wesley's chagrin, Charlie's view of Betty changes from death target to idyllic love interest as he stares at her picture throughout the pursuit.
The climax is impressive because LaBute doesn't reveal the ultimate direction and tone of the movie until the last few minutes. Charlie's flashes of love and anger make his climactic meeting with Betty both romantic and frightening. Will he woo her or kill her? It's a tense, invigorating scene that's the antithesis of typical comedic fare.
The principal performers make the film's edginess possible. All, with the exception of Rock, unveil multifaceted characters. Rock is decent, but his performance is little more than an embellishment of his comedy routine. Zellweger deserves praise for tossing her cute image into a dark arena. As Betty, she displays the same wounded awkwardness that earned her fans in "Jerry Maguire." This gutsy move will serve her well as she prepares for her potential A-list role in "Bridget Jones' Diary."
Morgan Freeman is the only actor who could play Charlie. The strength he's exhibited in "Glory" and "The Shawshank Redemption" is mixed with a hint of psychosis in "Betty," making him responsible for the film's unpredictability. Equally notable is Kinnear, who continues to shine in supporting roles. With limited screen time he creates a textured performance that would have taken most leading men an entire film to develop. This role is further proof that Kinnear's Oscar nomination was the prelude to an eventual win.
But all of this positivity is for naught because "Betty" will anger audiences. Perhaps in time the marketing will give way and allow the film to stand on its own, but for now "Betty" is being held in a false-advertising chokehold.
Filmfodder Grade: A-
Marketing Grade: F---