A Broad Innocence

The romantic comedy Nurse Betty was directed by Neil LaBute but not written by him, which may explain why it lacks his distinctive note of noxious misanthropy. In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, his two previous directorial efforts, were talked up in serioso circles as movies that dared to tell the truth about how we live. They were hailed as ritual dismemberments of bourgeois manners and male piggery, and if we recoiled from them, it’s only because we could not face the Truth. But LaBute’s worldview – to give it a grandiosity it doesn’t deserve – is rigged. He sheds crocodile tears over the lack of value in our lives, but the lives he shows us belong to dolts and simps and psychos. It’s existentialism adolescent-style, Mamet for Dummies, and probably he was right to plot a new course for his latest feature.

But LaBute’s earlier, viselike camera setups and syncopated nastiness at least had theatrical flair. Those first two movies looked like they were taking place inside a crypt, whereas Nurse Betty brings LaBute onto the open road, in the open air. It’s all rather sweet and blobby. The flip side to LaBute’s cheapjack cynicism, as it turns out, is a cheapjack romanticism. They’re equally counterfeit.

Instead of raking the human race over the coals, LaBute and his screenwriters, John C. Richards and James Flamberg, are playing a fantasy-and-reality game about a wide-eyed waitress, Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger), from Fair Oaks, Kansas, who is entranced with a character named Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear) from a General Hospital-style soap, A Reason to Love. Betty’s crumbum husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart), is a car salesman who believes that people with no lives watch people with fake lives. When a drug deal goes bad, Del is executed by a pair of hit men, the sonorous Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his loudmouth protégé, Wesley (Chris Rock). Witnessing the whole thing, Betty goes into a fugue state: Imagining Del to be alive and unharmed, she runs out on him and heads for Hollywood to connect with the soap star she believes is a real person.

Betty is less a character than a concept: She’s the one person in the movie who dreams the right dreams, and her innocence is used as the standard by which all else is judged. Whomever she comes into contact with is transformed, usually for the better. The soap star, when he finally meets her, is, of course, smitten. (Implausibly, it never occurs to him that she might be some smiley species of stalker.) Charlie, who trails Betty cross-country intent on killing her, becomes stuck on her instead, and goes a bit gaga; her grace and poise melt him. Wesley, on the other hand, resents her. “Is she too poised to pee?” he inquires. (It seems like a fair question.) LaBute is promoting Betty as the patron saint of all those lost souls who pine for fantasy lovers while playing out their miserable little-people lives.

Renée Zellweger is the right actress to play Betty, because her sweetness has always had its blotto side; there’s something a bit amnesiac about her screen presence. But she can’t completely disguise the condescension built into Nurse Betty. It’s doubtful that anybody who really cared about so-called common folk would depict them as commonly as LaBute does here. They’re lifelessly virtuous. Even the usually magnificent Morgan Freeman seems neutered by all the goodwill. The wised-up types such as Wesley and the soap writer-producer played wickedly well by Allison Janney shine by comparison. LaBute regains his appetite whenever there’s bile on the menu.

If the filmmakers really empathize with Betty, then why do they demonstrate so little pathos for her pathological condition? If one argues that this is just a dainty little fable, then why does LaBute shows us Del’s murder in garish, head-scalping close-up? This Tarantino-esque paroxysm seems all wrong for the movie – unless it’s there to imprint Betty’s fears upon us. Which it does, but then LaBute doesn’t follow through. He doesn’t take Betty seriously enough to give her a plausible psychology. Instead, her willed amnesia, which suppresses the memory of her husband’s murder, is presented to us as a state of grace. “I know there’s something special out there for me,” she says, in a line taken from her favorite soap, and it becomes her mantra. When Betty breaks out of her fugue state, it’s only into a more enlightened form of niceness. She becomes more comprehensively bland.

We’re supposed to think of The Wizard of Oz when we watch this film. Betty’s odyssey has taken her from Kansas to L.A. – the Oz of illusions – where her dreamboat is revealed to be merely an actor. But instead of discovering there’s no place like home, our heroine realizes she doesn’t need anybody because she’s got herself. Her triumph over her false pop dreams is meant as a celebration, but it looked to me like yet another pipe dream. Our relationship with pop culture, and how we perceive its reality or falseness, is far more complicated and compelling than the Goody Two-shoes wish-upon-a-star fatuity of this film. LaBute just isn’t very good at selling cheer.

A Broad Innocence