[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Neil LaBute didn’t write his latest feature film (John C. Richards and James Flamberg did), and when we consider how tunnel-visioned were In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, that immediately seems a healthy and liberating thing. And so it is. But the longer one watches Nurse Betty, the more the picture seems like essential LaBute — a study in obsessiveness and solipsism, but newly informed with a nutty generosity and an openness to the possibility of other points of view in the world.
Renée Zellweger plays a waitress in a Southwest diner who’s consumed with a TV soap set in a hospital, and totally smitten with its main character, “Dr. David Ravell” (Greg Kinnear). She’s not the show’s only rabid fan, but she has a better reason than most for preferring fantasy to reality. Her car-salesman husband Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart) is the male chauvinist pig of all time — and when he’s bloodily offed in their kitchen for stiffing some drug dealers, Betty’s reaction is bliss. Not out of cruelty. The shock has simply catapulted her straight into the alternate reality she’s always yearned for. Leaving the sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and the local newshound (Crispin Glover) to clean up the mess, she gets into the Buick she’s borrowed from Del’s lot and drives off for L.A. and “reunion” with her fiancé David. Little does she know that the hitmen — played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock — are hot on her trail. The car she’s driving probably contains the missing dope. But more importantly, Freeman’s senior hitman, like Lee Marvin’s in The Killers, has formed an obsession of his own — with Betty as an exemplar of “style and grace” — much to the exasperation of his partner.
Not to mince words, this is a terrific movie, with Freeman’s best role and richest performance since Seven and a magical starmaking turn by Zellweger (who of course should be a star already on the strength of The Whole Wide World and Jerry Maguire). The fascination, the comedic quotient, and the illusion/reality ante are upped considerably when Betty comes face to face with “David,” his fellow soap actors and producer (Allison Janney), and wins a shot at joining the show — they take her for a gifted, ambitious starlet on the make, whereas she’s just being Nurse Betty. (And in the course of doing so, avenging her entire gender for In the Company of Men.)
2020: Richards and Flamberg received the Screenplay award at Cannes. They weren’t there, so Neil usually-his-own-screenwriter LaBute had to accept for them.