Film Comment

Nurse Betty. – Review

Nurse Betty. – Review – movie review

Nicole Armour

NURSE BETTY Neil LaBute, USA, 2000


Midway through Neil LaBute’s new chase comedy, Nurse Betty, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), in hot pursuit of Renee Zellweger’s waitress on the lam, argue over the purpose of her journey. Known in her hometown of Fair Oaks, Kansas, for little else than being a soap opera devotee, most assume that she’s left for Los Angeles, determined to meet the man of her dreams, the fictitious Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), who appears each week on A Reason to Love. Enchanted by Betty’s supposed kindness and selflessness, Charlie refuses to accept this explanation, believing her to be too superior to fall for a soap star. Wesley responds by saying, “That bitch is a fuckin’ housewife. Ain’t nothin’ beneath her.” Though the line is uttered by the film’s hotheaded bad guy, Nurse Betty’s premise and treatment of its main character suggest that its writers, James Flamberg and John C. Richards, who won Best Screenplay at Cannes, and director, Neil LaBute, share its coarse sentiment. LaBute’s previous study in misogyny, In the Company of Men, was a particularly nasty investigation of male cruelty. But there it was difficult to determine how distanced the maker was from the madness — staging a situation isn’t necessarily to critique it. Much has been made of the improbability of LaBute at the helm of this melodramatic caper. On the surface, it seems to diverge from his typically minimalist, dialogue-driven fare. But, true to form, LaBute turns in another film in which the woman is played like a puppet in a relationship head-trip. Here, Betty’s desires are part of an ongoing gag in which everyone’s invited to participate, though she’s definitely not in on the joke.

Zellweger’s Betty is at the center of the film’s assembly of cynical, contemptuous characterizations. Smiling and apologetic, she daydreams through her marriage to an abusive used-car salesman (Aaron Eckhart, replete with stereotypical asshole’s mullet haircut) who fucks his secretary at work and rages when his dinner isn’t on the table when he gets home — indiscretions that are reduced here to little more than plot contrivances. Resigned to a birthday spent alone, Betty watches a taped version of her favorite show (her time in front of the TV is the only true pleasure in her caricatured Midwestern workaday life). Although her dosage of escapism is periodically disturbed by the sounds of her husband entertaining a pair of “clients” (Charlie and Wesley) in the kitchen, she’s too timid to complain. Mute and withdrawn throughout most of the film, except, of course, when discussing her show, Betty’s presence goes unnoticed by the men. When things turn ugly, her attention is torn between her husband’s brutal murder, witnessed through the crack of the door, and a pivotal moment in her favorite character’s trajectory, as Dr. Ravell looks up to the starlit sky and shares his conviction that “there’s something special out there for me.”

Traumatized, Betty falls into a dissociative state, though it’s debatable how in touch with reality she was to begin with. This dissociation, interpreted in the film as self-possession, propels her to drive all the way to L.A., concocting soap opera plots as she goes, certain she’ll meet up with her imaginary lover. Hot on her trail are her husband’s murderers, aching to get their hands on the hefty amount of coke hidden unbeknownst to her in her trunk. Along the way Charlie even starts to fall in love with Betty, imagining shared conversations and passionate kisses. Eventually they meet face-to-face and he can express his feelings at gunpoint. As in Forrest Gump, the clods who encounter Betty find inspiration in her get-up-and-go, unaware that her consciousness got-up-and-went. Like Gump, she’s a cipher, subject to the definitions projected on her by everyone she comes into contact with. Even she can’t stomach her own insubstantiality, opting instead to take the Harlequin Romance route and play nurse to Kinnear’s doctor.

Ultimately, Nurse Betty is about a woman who finds agency by dreaming up a new identity as a stock soap opera character. In this way, the film sustains the notion that delusions of romantic grandeur are a woman’s raison d’etre. The plot plays itself out like any given episode of Ally McBeal, both Betty and Ally certain that the right man is “out there.” (In fact, Calista Flockhart appeared in LaBute’s brutal stage play Bash a year ago.)

But the balls-out race for romance Ally and Betty are engaged in is, if anything, the lesser evil. More frustrating is their shared frailty and instability. Both women are childish and dependent upon the people around them — like Ally, Betty is unable to effectively create opportunities for herself, but instead expects the people on her periphery, such as her new friend Rosa (Tia Texada), to take an active interest in her pursuit of romantic love. Both Betty and Ally McBeal are representative of the current tendency toward “me-ism” (exemplified by The Oprah Winfrey Show), in which society is ignored in favor of uninterrupted, introspective narcissism, with all the blind selfishness and misplaced sense of entitlement that that implies. Betty may only be a character, but she’s part of a much larger trend toward conservative values and traditional female roles. Wallowing in feminine stereotypes like a pig in mud, Nurse Betty is as misogynistic as they come. In keeping with her work thus far, Zellweger will next appear as the daffy, obsessed (I’m fat and single!) Bridget in the upcoming film of the enormously popular Bridget Jones’ Diary. Good grief.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group