Directed by Neil LaBute

Written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg

With Renée Zellwegger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear

Distributed by USA Films

Opens October 24th


The response to Neil LaBute's first two films was as a textbook example of the way the press often builds artists up and then knocks them down. To many critics, La Bute's debut, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, was a masterful expose of the heartlessness of American capitalism, while his second film, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS, took a dive into pointless nihilism that - in conjunction with Peter Berg's VERY BAD THINGS and Todd Solondz's HAPPINESS - threatened the very soul of American cinema. Considering that I thought IN THE COMPANY OF MEN was as far from being the best film of 1997 as YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS was from being the worst film of 1998, I can see plenty of similarities between the two, including enough evidence of talent - especially a flair for directing actors and a distinctively claustrophobic visual style - not to write LaBute off as a two-bit cynic. Love them or hate them, those films showed plenty of personality. Perhaps a response to the criticism YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS received,  NURSE BETTY seems born out of a desire to escape the confines of LaBute's directorial persona. For better and for worse, it feels fairly impersonal, and unfortunately, it will likely go a long way towards justifying and furthering the LaBute backlash.

"Nurse" Betty Sizemore (Zellwegger) is a waitress in a small Kansas town who's devoted to the soap opera A REASON TO LOVE and infatuated with its hero Dr. David Ravell, played by actor George McCord (Kinnear). Her husband Del (Aaron Eckhart, in a blonde mullet) blithely cheats on her and conducts drug deals behind her back. After Del  rips off a dealer, the father/son hitman team of Charlie (Freeman) and Wesley (Rock) come to his house to kill him. Watching A REASON TO LOVE in another room while the murder takes place, Betty enters a fugue state in which she comes to believe that the show is reality. In this delusional state, she moves to L.A., convinced that Dr. Ravell was once her fiancee, and tries to find a job in the hospital where "he" works.

The major difference between IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS is that the former offered a rationale for its characters' cruelty, suggesting that it's encouraged, if not generated, by corporate capitalism, while YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS deliberately placed its examination of cruelty outside a political context. In retrospect, one wonders if the politics of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN existed to justify LaBute's   misanthropy, but NURSE BETTY attempts to offer a return to social criticism.  It's  a given that Hollywood can't or won't grapple directly with the reality of American life, but films like THE TRUMAN SHOW,  BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and (in a far less overt manner) THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT have gone a long way towards doing justice to the unreality of American life. NURSE BETTY tries to do the same, but I can't take warnings about the dangers of confusing TV with reality  seriously when they come  from screenwriters whose  knowledge of human behavior stems mostly from  PULP FICTION and THE KING OF COMEDY.

The impersonality of NURSE BETTY has its positive side: while LaBute treats his heroine somewhat patronizingly, he's largely abandoned his dubious fascination with misogyny. In the hands of another director or actress, Betty could easily  have become a complete caricature, a la the gargoyles played by Glenn Close and Julianne Moore in Robert Altman's COOKIE'S FORTUNE. (I'm thankful that Altman or the Coen brothers didn't adapt this script.)
 Instead of playing Betty's obsession for easy laughs, Zellwegger's restrained performance treats her more respectfully than the script does. LaBute gets a fine set of performances out of the whole cast, with Chris Rock supplying a few much-needed jolts of irreverence and Morgan Freeman lending an air of wounded dignity to the proceedings.

As good as Freeman is, it's impossible for me to take his character - an odd amalgam of the intellectual cop he played in SE7EN and an older, wiser version of Samuel L. Jackson's character in PULP FICTION - seriously.  Given IN THE COMPANY OF MEN's refreshing reliance on  theatrical influences, rather than cinematic ones, it's surprising to see LaBute borrow from PULP FICTION, but the entire subplot about Charlie and Wesley plays like a bad Tarantino imitation. In particular, Del's murder scene, which begins with Charlie querying Del about his low opinion of small-town residents and ends with Wesley scalping Del after he makes a racist remark about "Injuns,"   mixes talk, humor and sadism in a manner that could hardly be more PULPy.

Tarantino's mixture of genres and tones worked far better than  NURSE BETTY's indecisiveness. Is it a satire on small-town life? Well, that's over after the first twenty minutes. A satire on big-city life? The ease with which Betty insinuates herself into a hospital position and then into George McCord's suggests a larger target than one woman's delusions, but the film's view of Hollywood  has about as much bite and insight  as  an E! Channel special on stalkers.  A thriller about a killer looking for redemption against the wishes of  his more impulsive and amoral partner? Been there, seen two dozen better versions of the story. Whatever NURSE BETTY wants to accomplish, its ludicrous finale gave my chances of taking it seriously a real smackdown. At least  there's little danger of anyone becoming obsessed with its characters.