Films

Irony with a side of romance

Nurse Betty is the absurdist tale of a deluded soap opera fan

Brian D. Johnson September 11 2000
Films

Irony with a side of romance

Nurse Betty is the absurdist tale of a deluded soap opera fan

Brian D. Johnson September 11 2000

Irony with a side of romance

Films

Nurse Betty is the absurdist tale of a deluded soap opera fan

Brian D. Johnson

Being unable to tell the difference between the real world and one created for television has become a new kind of American virtue. From Jim Carrey’s heroic gullibility as an unwitting TV star in The Truman Show to the mass delusion of viewers doting on the castaway “reality” of Survivor, naïve suspension of disbelief is pop culture’s reigning fashion. You can wear it both ways, like a reversible parka: enjoy the fantasy or turn it inside out and view the experience with cynical superiority.

Nurse Betty is its latest model. This dark comedy about a soap-opera fan who falls through the looking glass is reminiscent of Tootsie, Being There, Being John Malkovich and To Die For—a fable about a character lost on the borderline between life and art. Throw in a hair-raising slash of Tarantino violence—a scalping, no less—and Nurse Betty starts to look like yet another prescription for an irony overdose. But the movie takes an unexpected turn. Just when you think the joke is wearing thin and are about to dismiss it as a clever but shallow conceit that cannot possibly be sustained, Nurse Betty turns into something altogether different, and weirdly invigorating—a shot in the arm for the ailing formula of romantic comedy.

Renée Zellwegger, who has made a career of playing earnest heroines— from the ingenue in Jerry Maguire to the ditz of Me, Myself & Irene—stars as Betty, a waitress in small-town Kansas. Neglected by her car-salesman lout of a husband, she looks for love in a daytime soap. One night, while watching a taped episode, she witnesses the brutal murder of her husband (Aaron Eck-

hart) by two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). The trauma jolts her into a new, deluded identity: Betty comes to believe she is the nurse once jilted by Dr. David Ravell, her soapopera idol. Determined to reunite with him, she hits the road and tracks him down at the Los Angeles “hospital” where the show is produced.

With her scrunched-up eyes, always so intently fixed on the emotion at hand, Zellwegger pulls off a challenging role with unwavering conviction. Greg Kinnear is immaculately cast as George, the narcissistic actor who plays the doctor—and mistakes Betty for an exceptional method actor. And as the oddball hit men who tail her to Los Angeles, Freeman and Rock make a hilarious duo—Freeman as a sentimental fool, and Rock as his impulsive protégé.

Nurse Betty picks up all the loose threads of American independent film—from visceral shock to absurdist irony—and bundles them with a flair for comic melodrama reminiscent of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Remarkably, the movie was directed by Neil LaBute, who established himself as the most cynical filmmaker in America with his first two features, In the Com-

pany of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. With Nurse Betty, the first of his features that he has not written, LaBute salvages genuine romance from the cynicism—undercut by enough provocative cruelty to prove he hasn’t gone soft.

For those who prefer their soap opera straight up, The Way of the Gun offers a grisly mix of carnage, torture, backroom surgery and painful dialogue. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie— who won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects—this contemporary western serves as a tough-guy initiation rite for Hollywood pretty boys Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro. They play desperados who kidnap a very pregnant surrogate mother—Juliette Lewis, plumbing new depths of degradation—and try to exact a ransom from the gangster who has hired her. This movie, too, features a doctor who acts as if he only plays one on television. And for viewers whose sense of irony is refined enough to enjoy watching a woman undergo a caesarean section at a Mexican villa while a bloody shootout rages around her, The Way of the Gun may seem like heaven. Others may feel trapped in a post-Tarantino hell, screaming for Nurse Betty. C3