The last words you'd expect to hear about a film by Neil Labute, the director who brought us the breathtakingly nasty, "In the Company of Men," and "Your Friends and Neighbors," (which was so irredeemably savage that even many "Company" fans were alienated) are probably "sweet, romantic, screwball comedy."
Before you go running off to Showcase expecting a modern "It Happened One Night," let me caution you, this is a sweet comedy about a temporarily deranged woman who flees in shock after seeing her husband scalped and shot, and is pursued across country by two hit men.
Hey, this IS a Neil LaBute movie, after all.
Renee Zellwegger is Betty Sizemore, the beloved naif waitress in a small Kansas town. She is married to Del, (Aaron Eckhart -- a LaBute regular and the love interest in "Erin Brockovich") the town used car salesman who treats her like dirt, while philandering and hatching crooked schemes.
Betty's only dreams are of Dr. David Revell, (Greg Kinnear) the lead character in her favorite soap opera "A Reason to Love," but Del looks for the scam that can get him a big score. One of Del's schemes brings a team of hit men to town, the laconic and philosophical Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his hair trigger partner, Wesley (Chris Rock).
In shock after seeing her husband killed while she was hiding out and watching her soap in the next room, Betty loses touch with reality and heads out to L.A., to reunite with her "ex-fiance" Dr. Revell. Searching for him in hospitals in the guise of a nurse, Betty saves a man's life by using a tracheotomy technique she learned from TV, is hired on the spot, and offered a place to stay by Rosa, (Tia Texada) the victim's grateful sister.
Rosa gets involved in Betty's wild goose chase, not knowing that the man she is helping search for is a fictional character. When she finds out, a ticked off Rosa, puts Betty in a situation where she will run into George Marshall, the actor who plays a doctor on tv, in order to wreck the illusion.
In a screamingly funny scene, both Marshall and his entourage, are convinced that Betty is not a deranged fan, but the most determined method actor they have ever seen, and she is hired to do a guest stint on "A Reason to Love."
Meanwhile, Charlie has become obsessed with Betty while reading her diary and gazing at her snapshot, much to the irritation of Wesley; and the town sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vance) and reporter (Crispin Glover) are also hot on Betty's trail.
LaBute takes lots of chances in "Nurse Betty," and most of them work. This is a fractured fairy tale/ show business satire/ crime story with loads of imagination -- when's the last time you heard THAT about an American comedy?
"Nurse Betty" also manages to pay tribute to a good chunk of Hollywood history from "The Wizard of Oz," to "Pulp Fiction," from "The Fugitive" to "Laura."
Every bit part in "Nurse Betty" is filled with intriguing choices of familiar faces from TV and the movies; and the big stars do their part, too. Renee Zellweger is perfect with her scrunched up charm, and the movie makes good use of her natural charm. It's hard to imagine anyone in the role.
Morgan Freeman is also great with his only slightly off-kilter version of his usual dignified character, but his deadpan delivery is good for frequent big laughs. Chris Rock is a good comic foil for him, while Greg Kinnear plays the vain, self absorbed and shallow actor to perfection.
Everything works so well in "Nurse Betty" that it's easy to forget just how hard it is to pull something like this off. Think of all the lame Hollywood sendups you've seen in the last decade, and you'll appreciate the fine work here by LaBute and writers John Richards and James Flamberg all the more.
Like the Cohen brothers, LaBute knows when to play it straight, and when to go for wacky. "Nurse Betty" is a touch more serious than "Raising Arizona," but definitely lighter than "Fargo." Best of all, it's in that league of movie making.