Rated R - Running Time: 1:52 - Released 9/8/00

After achieving critical acclaim and several award nominations for her breakthrough role in 1996's Jerry Maguire, Renée Zellweger has distinguished herself well opposite Meryl Streep in One True Thing, and made two mediocre movies watchable (last year's The Bachelor and this summer's Me, Myself, & Irene). With Nurse Betty, Zellweger moves fully into the realm of leading lady. Her crooked mouth and mousey voice notwithstanding, I wouldn't think it would be out of the question for her to garner an Oscar nomination for this excellent performance as a twisted yet eminently likable individual.

Of course, for an actor to do really great work, he needs a good script and good direction. Both elements are present here, not to mention a very well-equipped supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, and Greg Kinnear. Directed by Neil LaBute, who won critical accolades for his edgy 1997 writing/directing debut In The Company Of Men, Nurse Betty is itself the freshman effort of writers John C. Richards and James Flamberg. Their talents with plot and character mesh nicely with LaBute's pacing and Zellweger's down-to-earth style to produce a truly enjoyable result. Nurse Betty isn't always funny, nor is it meant to be, but it holds some interesting perspectives on human nature and interpersonal relationships.

Betty Sizemore (Zellweger) is not really a nurse. She's a waitress in a Kansas roadhouse diner called the Tip-Top, whose life hasn't turned out exactly like she planned. As one character puts it, "Betty doesn't want more out of life, she just wants something out of it." She does enjoy one little part of her existence, though: she is addicted to a medical soap opera called A Reason To Love. When she's watching her show, she can forget the dull monotony of her depressing life and immerse herself in the goings on of the show's L.A. hospital and especially of her favorite character, Dr. David Ravell, who is played by actor George McCord (Kinnear). And it is while she is watching this story that her abusive, deadbeat, car salesman husband Dell (Aaron Eckhart) is murdered in the next room by a couple of drug runners who are looking for 10 kilos of cocaine that is hidden in one of Dell's cars. Although Charlie (Freeman), the seasoned professional, hadn't meant to kill Dell, his brash young protegé Wesley (Rock) forced the issue.

Unnoticed by the criminals, Betty witnesses the murder but her involvement in the TV show causes her to snap. She decides to make her way to L.A. to look for Dr. Ravell, whom she thinks is her former fiancé, and re-establish her relationship with him. While Charlie and Wesley are searching the trunk of every car in Dell's lot, Betty hits the road unaware that the drugs are stashed in her own vehicle. Soon she is being pursued not only by Charlie and Wesley, who think she intentionally took the drugs, but by the local sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and newspaper reporter (Crispin Glover), who wonder if she may have committed the murder.

What I have mentioned is only the first act. The plot is so fascinatingly complex that it's impossible to relate it all, but Betty's experiences when she reaches L.A. are merely a sidebar to the complex psychological issues revealed by the numerous characters she encounters along the way. Although Zellweger's portrayal of an individual losing her grip on reality is astoundingly convincing, Freeman also becomes wrapped up in fantasies about his quarry, whom he builds into a kind of criminal mastermind, looking forward to their eventual meeting with growing anticipation. Moreover, Kinnear's performance is also multi-faceted, his reaction to Betty's adulation evolving as the extent of her delusion slowly becomes clear.

Although Nurse Betty is a clever story on the surface, and would suffice as a movie based solely on that, its real charm lies in the depth of character revealed slowly for each of the people in the story, like the layers one discovers when peeling an onion, and its cynical take on TV soap operas and those who follow them. Relationships change as the characters discover more about each other, and our perceptions of these characters change, too. Even the relationship between the two criminals is not fully revealed until the final reel. And although it seems to be merely a backdrop element, the soap opera becomes the catalyst for every major event in the film. While Nurse Betty's ending is pat and oversimplified, most of what precedes it is thoroughly entertaining. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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