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Nurse Betty

When former playwright Neil LaBute released his debut film In the Company of Men, it was apparent this writer/director was not afraid to present humanity in ways that made audiences squirm. In fact, in just a short time LaBute has fashioned an indelible body of work exposing the painful humor of our flawed natures. The controversial In the Company of Men — a tale of two men and their deceptive manipulation of a beautiful deaf woman — sparked heated discussions about gender, relationships, and ethics. LaBute's follow-up film, the misogynistic relationship-bashing Your Friends and Neighbors was an even more brutal and cynical look at human interaction. Interestingly, LaBute describes both these films as comedies. Not necessarily your typical Hollywood romantic comedy, where laughter is generated in sit-com style, but, as LaBute explains, laughter that derives from "something that's socially observant and willing to be true to itself, true to its subject." In his third film, Nurse Betty, LaBute finds the perfect blend of paradoxical comedy, unlikely romance, and social irony. The story, beautifully written and filled with clever dialogue by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, is chock full of the kind of twisted characters LaBute has built a reputation depicting. Nurse Betty stars Renee Zellweger as Betty Sizemore, a small-town Kansas waitress, a passionate fan of the soap opera A Reason to Love, and the wife of philandering, dumb-cracker, used-car salesman Del (Aaron Eckhart). Morgan Freeman is Charlie, the philosophical hitman with a heart of gold, and Chris Rock co-stars as Wesley, his foul-mouthed and trigger-happy partner. When Del double-crosses Charlie in a drug deal, Charlie and Wesley murder Del in an act of extremely gruesome violence, unaware that Betty is witnessing the murder from another room where she is quietly watching her soap. The shock sends Betty into a psychological tailspin that pushes her into an altered state and on the road to Los Angeles in search of Dr. David Ravell — the fictional doctor on A Reason to Live (played by the creepy yet charming Greg Kinnear). Betty believes Dr. Ravell is real and that she is his long-lost love. Following closely behind Betty on her cross-country trek are Charlie and Wesley — they need to off Betty because she can identify them as murderers, and they need to reclaim the drugs stored, unbeknownst to Betty, in the trunk of her Buick. Charlie — a strong, mature, and an ethical killer who "never took out anyone who didn't have it coming," — begins to revere and then love Betty as he builds a profile of her life, creating conflicting feelings that lead him to question his life as a "garbageman of the human condition." Charlie has created in Betty an image to satisfy his own needs, just as Betty has substituted the selfless Dr. Ravell for her cad of a husband. Nurse Betty requires careful viewing. The turbulent plot — with shootouts, car crashes, and stolen drugs — is simply a ruse (which, apparently, many viewers at the initial screening at Cannes were unable to see past). The real story lies in the complicated, multi-layered characterizations and the thought-provoking ideas about fantasy, romance, and self-need. The story asks us to examine our emotional selves — What makes us feel satisfied? What, if anything, do we really need from each other? Charlie and Betty are in love with people they have never met, and their fantasies serve as projections of their desires — just like in a soap opera. As different as these two characters are on the outside, their inner lives are on a parallel course. Making such complicated characters believable necessitates a high caliber of acting talent, and LaBute has assembled a cast that is more than up to the challenge. Zellweger gives Betty a sweetness and naiveté that is believable without being corny. (As Charlie explains, Betty has a "Doris Day thing going on.") Eckhart, though his onscreen time is short, is perfectly cast as the epitome of the mindless, bigoted nincompoop. But it is Freeman who does the finest work here in what is a tricky character portrayal. Freeman, who is always riveting, gives one of the best performances of his career, and host of excellent supporting characters makes the film even more exceptional, including Crispin Glover as the small-town reporter, Pruitt Taylor Vince as the local lawman, Allison Janney as the ruthless soap writer/producer, and Tia Texada as Betty's wacky L.A. roommate. USA Films' DVD release of Nurse Betty offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. A nice selection of both informative and funny extras are on board as well, including two audio commentary tracks — one with LaBute and cast members Zellweger, Rock, Freeman, and Kinnear; a second with LaBute and the producers, composer, director of photography, and costume designer. Most fun are nine episodes of A Reason to Love, acted with true soap-opera earnestness. The disc also includes six promotional spots, deleted scenes, and an archived, Web-accessible shooting script. Keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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