‘Nurse Betty’ Is a Psychotic Brew of Humour, Heart and Outright Weirdness

In 1997, director Neil LaBute established himself to cinemagoers with In the Company of Men, a caustic story of male chauvinism and outright psychopathy. It impressed and appalled viewers in equal measure, with its characters, themes, and dialogue described as ‘bitterly promising’, ‘vastly entertaining’ and ‘singularly unpleasant’.

LaBute returned the following year with Your Friends and Neighbors, which was a similarly noxious satire of egotism and selfishness. Both films came from LaBute’s roots in Chicago theatre, where he had been inspired by figures such as David Mamet, the incendiary playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross. While LaBute’s first two films were too uncompromising to reach a wide audience, there was no doubt that his bleak, misanthropic observations were making a potent transfer from stage to screen.

Nurse Betty, however, would strike an altogether different tone. With Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and a quasi-rom-com aesthetic, this was a foray into the mainstream. It was also the first time LaBute had chosen a script, which had been penned by John C. Richards and James Flamberg. Then there was the 25 million dollar budget – one hundred times that of In the Company of Men.

LaBute’s decision was not a rash grab at the mainstream, though, and the script’s whimsical trappings were not froth. Rather, they served as a knowing sheen over what LaBute identified as an original and darkly comic story.

The film begins in the two-dimensional world of A Reason to Love, a medical soap opera following the high drama of Dr. David Ravell, played by tabloid heartthrob George McCord (Greg Kinnear). As Ravell navigates his latest life and death situation, the frame cuts away from the TV’s fuzzy scan to the vacant expression of Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger), a Kansas waitress who is hypnotised by the show’s glossy melodrama.

It is in these opening moments that Nurse Betty may appear as a middling rom-com vehicle, with Betty as the proverbial small-town girl complimented by a score of gentle woodwinds. However, nothing is stock in this offbeat black comedy, and Zellweger makes sure of it with her sensitive performance, depicting Betty’s parochial quirk in a way that’s endearing rather than patronising.

Then, in its nineteenth minute, any illusion of softness is positively shattered when Betty’s husband Del (Aaron Eckhart) is fatally brutalised by hitmen Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock). It is a shocking moment that won’t be elaborated here, but let’s just say that it would resonate with the ghost of George Custer.

Del feels like a relative of Eckhart’s character Chad from In The Company of Men. However, whereas Chad is an evil predator, Del’s just a total jerk off. He’s crass, unfaithful and sports a horrendous mullet, although he does make a valid point about A Reason to Love, “soaps are for people with no lives watching fake lives.”

Needless to say, this is the beginning and end of Del’s wisdom. His latest mistake is supplementing his income by selling drugs, a trade that has life-shortening consequences for double-dealing chumps like Del, whose dodgy deal has brought two hitmen into his living room.

Betty is in the house during Charlie and Wesley’s interrogation, but she is too engrossed in A Reason to Love for the commotion to register. She only peers through the door as Del meets his viciously grisly end, causing her such shock that her psyche retreats into a post-traumatic fugue state.

Suddenly, Betty is a blank slate, convinced that she is a nurse and the former fiancée of Dr. David Ravell. Without telling anyone, she packs her belongings and leaves for Los Angeles in a Buick LaSabre, confident that she can rekindle her engagement to Ravell.

With Betty now AWOL, we’re introduced to Charlie and Wesley, who sleuth through the Midwest on her tail. They’re familiar characters with a typical veteran-rookie dynamic. Yet Freeman and Rock share real chemistry. There is some snap and fluency to their dialogue, which usually consists of toing and froing about Wesley’s impetuousness or Charlie’s crush on Betty. “Nutty as my shit after I eat an almond roca!” exclaims Wesley, exasperated by what he sees as Charlie’s sentimental conjecture.

The characters are lifted from triteness by the dialogue’s dark wit and the actor’s skilful performances. Rock puts that shrill, ranting energy of his stand-up routines to good use, while Freeman, of course, does sagacious badass better than just about anyone.

In Los Angeles, Betty’s life unravels in the most improbable ways, but it is unpredictable, entertainingly so, and it is balanced by the character’s bemusement. The earnest romance of Betty’s delusion puts her in many awkward situations as other characters gauge whether she’s joking or if she’s mad. We even get placed in the delusion ourselves, with cloying close-ups and overwrought music that pastiche the soap opera genre. It’s all fun and cringeworthy in equal measure.

Through a twist of fate, Betty is introduced to George McCord, the actor of David Ravell, and their encounter turns into an improv session, with a tone that blurs between competition, ridicule and sexual attraction. It’s a well-written scene in a film that’s full of them. Nurse Betty’s deft screenplay manages to tame its exaggerated reality and have you willingly suspending disbelief. This is a reflection of a great script.

How is this crazy story going to end? When is Betty going to be found out? With LaBute at the helm, you’re wary of his female subject receiving the Lars Von Trier treatment, namely in the style of Dancer in the Dark, also released in the year 2000. However, the conclusion of Betty, David, Charlie and Wesley won’t be mentioned here.

For one reason or another, Nurse Betty joined LaBute’s In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours in being underseen and underappreciated. These films have 53,592 votes between them on IMDb, some 10,000 fewer than The Wicker Man, LaBute’s fascinatingly bad 2006 remake, which requires a whole series of retrospectives to fully understand. Perhaps that was the reason? It certainly can’t have helped. Either way, the premise of Nurse Betty will always be too improbable for some, but for many others, it will be a psychotically weird brew of violence, comedy and pathos.

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