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NURSE BETTY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart
Director:  Neil LaBute
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  USA Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  April 3, 2001

Film ****

Nurse Betty is a weird and wonderful film that plays like a cross between The Purple Rose of Cairo and Pulp Fiction.  It tickles the funnybone and tugs at the heartstrings almost simultaneously.  It has moments of pure joy, incredible tenderness, and surprising violence.  In other words, it’s a movie that will act as a tonic for anybody who doesn’t believe anything truly original or special comes out of the movies anymore.

For starters, I challenge anyone to watch this picture and then say the Academy was justified in snubbing Renee Zellweger for a Best Actress nomination.  In fact, I’ll challenge them one further:  I defy them to say that Julia Roberts deserved the statuette for Erin Brockovich after seeing Nurse Betty.  Ms. Zellweger, who came to attention for her sunny work in Jerry Maguire, brings the title character to life here with a wonderful amount of humanity, heart and soul.  It’s a strange journey the audience has to take with this woman, one that asks for logic to be abandoned in favor of embracing the fantastic.  Without her strong, amazing performance, none of that might be possible.

Betty is not a nurse.  She’s a coffee shop waitress in a small town in Kansas.  She lives with her boorish husband Del (Eckhart), a smarmy used car salesman, and her only escape is into her favorite television program, the soap opera “A Reason to Love”.  She loves the character of Dr. David Ravell (Kinnear), who is a kind, sad and dutiful surgeon on the show, but is of course, just another actor in real life.

Her journey begins when two hit men, Charlie (Freeman) and Wesley (Rock), show up at her house to settle some unpleasant business with her husband.  Witnessing the grisly murder sends her into a state of shock, which she emerges from with no memory of the foul deed or her real life.  She believes she is Dr. Ravell’s long lost one-time fiancée, and a nurse to boot.  With a cheery smile and a dream in her heart, she sets off on the long trip west to join her beloved in Los Angeles.

But while her trek to California is full of hope and joy, Charlie and Wesley follow with a much darker purpose.  They have to find Betty and “finish the job”.  For the aging Charlie, this assignment is his last one.  He looks toward his future with a sullen sense of optimism, and though he has no idea of Betty’s traumatic character change, begins to believe that maybe for the first time in his life, he’s found something beautiful and pure in her.  Wesley, on the other hand, is an edgy hothead who maybe takes a little too much pleasure in his work to be an efficient killer.  He doesn’t care about Betty nor buy into his partner’s misplaced ideals about her.  Ironically, though, he’s just as hooked on the soap opera as Betty…a fact that plays in the movie in moments of comical juxtaposition.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to delve into the plot much deeper than that.  This is one of the few films I can remember whose trailer didn’t give away too much, and I don’t want to be guilty of that, either.  Suffice to say, the picture has surprises in store:  unforeseen twists and turns, along with moments of heartwarming tenderness and heartache…even a little suspense.

What fascinates me about the picture is the link between Betty and Charlie.  Each are sad, lonely souls who are chasing a dream, but in both cases, the dream isn’t real, but a personal projection of how they want that reality to be.  Charlie’s vision of Betty is no more true or valid than Betty thinking that some cheesy actor is really the noble and romantic Dr. David Ravell.  “I don’t think I’m the person you think I am,” she carefully tells Charlie when they finally meet, in a scene that’s funny, frightening and sad.

This is a top notch cast of actors in prime condition.  Morgan Freeman is excellent as always, bringing out the soul in the complicated and sad Charlie.  We look in this man’s eyes and see the wake of dead bodies strewn by his lifetime, and we see the lines of pain, intelligence and hurtful experience on his face.  Chris Rock can always be counted on for a laugh when he makes an appearance in film, but here, he flexes true acting mettle as Wesley.  He’s occasionally funny, but when he is, it isn’t Chris Rock funny.  He’s tapped into something with this character, which in turn, brings out the best in Rock as an actor.  Greg Kinnear proves once again that his wonderful work in As Good as it Gets was no fluke.  He plays the doctor as well as the actor playing the doctor, and rises to the challenge in some awkward moments.  And Aaron Eckhart, who’s appeared in all of LaBute’s films thus far, makes the most out of his small amount of screen time, creating an unforgettable character.

But the picture belongs to Renee Zellweger.  She gives the performance of the year as Betty, finding this woman’s heart and understanding her desires.  We like her from the minute we see her; we love her completely by journey’s end.  I strongly wager that anyone who sees this film will cheer for her.

The script by screenwriters John C. Richards and James Flamberg is refreshingly daring, and brave enough to play comedy against drama and violence against sweetness.  But credit must also be given to director Neil LaBute, who makes sure the ingredients blend smoothly into a delightful and smart motion picture.  His two previous films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors are among my favorites; they indicate his skill in dealing with the complexities of humanity, even in this, his first directorial effort where he didn’t also write the screenplay.

Oscar snub or no, Nurse Betty was one of the best films of the year.  I saw it theatrically many months ago, and was impressed when I watched this DVD and realized I remembered so much of it:  not just the people and the stories, but the little nuances and emotions that went along with them.  Only the unique movie going experience can have that kind of effect, and Nurse Betty is all of that and more.

Video **

Though not indicated on the box, this is an anamorphically enhanced offering from USA Entertainment.  That being said, I was quite disappointed in the transfer.  Many scenes looked good, but too many, including pivotal ones, didn’t translate well at all.  Color saturation is a problem throughout:  scenes go from too yellow to too blue to too red to too white to too orange and back again.  When this happens, there’s undue color bleeding, unnatural flesh tones, and a considerable amount of softness to the images…enough, I’m afraid, to be a distraction.  There’s more good than bad at play here, but those handful of problematic scenes detract from the overall quality of the DVD.

Audio ***

There are two key sequences when the 5.1 soundtrack come to life, and both of them involve a bizarre collage of sounds indicated a dreamlike state for the characters.  The rest of the time, the movie is mostly dialogue oriented and doesn’t make demands on you system.  Spoken words and music are mostly presented on the forward stage, and sounds clean, crisp and satisfying.

Features ****

Nurse Betty offers two commentary tracks, one of which is the best so far in this young year.  It’s a group track with director LaBute and stars Zellweger, Freeman, Rock and Kinnear, and is a funny and informative listen.  Kinnear even muses about what if somebody at home accidentally hit the audio button on their remote and stumbled on their commentary…funny stuff!  There are moments of Ms. Zellweger alone, reflecting on the experience and her work as the title character, but for the most part, listening to this crew is like eavesdropping on a fun wrap party.  The other commentary features LaBute and some members of his technical crew…not as lively, but equally informative.

The disc also contains a trailer and 6 TV spots, plus several deleted scenes and the assembled “A Reason to Love” soap opera as filmed for inclusion in the movie.  There are also some DVD ROM extras and hidden Easter eggs.  Outstanding package!

Summary:

If you missed this terrific and original film the first time around, make your appointment to see Nurse Betty on DVD.  This movie, with its wonderful cast, sharp script and sure handed direction is one you won’t soon forget.