Double Fantasy

Reneé Zellweger and Morgan Freeman stalk their dreams in Nurse Betty

Writing a good screenplay is not difficult; you just follow the paradigm, available for a pittance at fine bookstores everywhere. But writing a great script -- especially an unpretentious and perceptive one -- requires the sort of energy that earned coscreenwriters Richards and Flamberg the Best Screenplay award at Cannes for Nurse Betty. Not only is the material at once subtly and outrageously funny (as when Pruitt, as the sheriff, mutters, "I'm the law.... I don't gotta do nothin'!"), it is drenched in tiny grace notes that make even this preposterous journey seem real. Witness, for example, the Midwestern baby-factory that is Betty's best friend, or Del's vulgar references to local "Injuns," or Betty's supervisor in L.A., who jokes at the confused woman's glowing appraisal of the nonexistent hospital: "You just described all of Southern California." A lot of movies cough up their best material in the first ten minutes, then decay for another ninety. Here we're about halfway into the movie before an L.A. confidant -- a self-styled woman named Rosa (Tia Texada) who'd make Frida Kahlo seem bubbly by comparison -- mocks Betty's "stupid white soap opera." If LaBute has a gift, it's to keep the punches from being pulled.

Another reason Nurse Betty is so much more satisfying than In the Company of Men or Your Friends and Neighbors is that it lacks LaBute's trademark queasy, almost confessional tone. Stewing in their own juices (women are "meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering," and love is, yawn, "a disease"), those films were provocative without being productive, oozing with cheap, rushed infatuation on one hand, playing cutesy and mean on the other. Men at least wrapped up with an interesting sense of agony, but Friends was mostly a cranky puppet show, and it made LaBute seem about as generous and sexy as Woody Allen. Here, enhanced by some perfectly focused set design from Charles Breen (right down to the woman-and-wolf image on Rosa's refrigerator), the characters are fleshed out as people, rather than just warring ideologies. When Charlie and Wesley are stalled on the road, the younger man shouts, "I will shoot that bitch like she scratched my car!" but this time the misogyny seems like a scar on the soul, not a festival of loathing.

Until she finds her pot of gold, Betty (Reneé Zellweger) will just have to pour coffee in Kansas
Until she finds her pot of gold, Betty (Reneé Zellweger) will just have to pour coffee in Kansas

If LaBute has a second gift, it's selecting and directing fine actors, and even Eckhart (who had to work a lot harder recently to play a noncaricature in John Duigan's Molly) avoids merely punching the clock. Rock is extremely funny, ladling his venom on whoever is available, calling Freeman "Bojangles" and (in the movie's most implausible scene), spewing his adolescent theories of murder all over Betty's cracker grandparents in their sitting room. As with most of the characters here, he feels like an open wound seeking a balm, which makes the curses and conflicts all the more amusing and touching. The exchanges between Zellweger and Kinnear also pack the most ticklish sort of discomfort, as she courts her dream man with unflinching sincerity, just as Freeman loses his sense of gravity to swoon for her. Ultimately the ending of Nurse Betty is absurd, but, because happiness is revealed along the way to be a very complex arrangement, it avoids being pat. One feels the hope in the trenches when Rosa consoles Betty: "I just want you to get your fairy-tale ending. At least one of us should." It may be a while before someone transcribes Nurse Betty into rhyming couplets, but the movie is brave enough to allow its intrepid heroine to jettison our national cynicism and pessimism somewhere along Route 66. That in itself makes it a story worth remembering.

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