All through the movie, you wait for it. You wait for the moment when Nurse Betty, a quirky fable about an amnesiac Kansas waitress (sweetly embodied by Renée Zellweger) on a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to marry her favorite soap opera doctor, will turn thoroughly ugly. Tragic, even.
After all, it involves two ruthless hitmen — played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock in yin-yang, old-young, cool-hot counterpoint — who prove early on that they’re capable of atrocity. And it’s directed by Neil LaBute, the man who’s made darkly ironic endings his specialty in such sour portraits of humanity as In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and the controversial stage production (and recent Showtime special) bash: latter day plays.
”I think some people expect Neil to have hooves and a pointy tail,” jokes Greg Kinnear, who plays the vain soap star that Zellweger’s Betty knows only as Dr. David Ravell, superstar surgeon of Loma Vista Hospital. ”He’s not that. He’s a delightful person, and very funny, who happens to have an incredible sense of irony and a savage wit.”
Except this time, it’s a lot less savage. For anybody who finds LaBute’s earlier stuff forbiddingly bleak, Nurse Betty may come as a tonic. In it, the LaBute sucker punch never comes — in part because LaBute didn’t write the script. Who did? John C. Richards, who also composes short stories, and James Flamberg, a longtime movie-music editor and producer who’s worked with Barry Levinson and other major directors.
So what’s a purveyor of low-budget angst-oramas like LaBute doing directing a shiny, happy comedy like the roughly $25 million Nurse Betty? Was he consciously trying to change his image so he could land bigger projects, like the romantic drama Possession, which he just started shooting in England with Gwyneth Paltrow?
”There was very little ‘Wouldn’t this be shrewd?’ on my part,” says the 38-year-old filmmaker. ”I think it was a case of opposites attracting. I looked at this script and felt, Gosh, I could probably never write this. Let’s see if I could direct it.”
LaBute says he loved the story’s sudden narrative twists, its questions about the difference between benevolent obsessions and fatal ones, and its multicharacter structure, though he did do some uncredited dialogue polishing. And instead of summoning his usual scorched-earth style, he frames the tale with mostly gentle satirical jabs (bursts of graphic violence excepted), an approach that has critics tossing around superlatives. There’s also talk that after a lackluster summer, Nurse Betty is the first strong Oscar contender since March’s Erin Brockovich.
But Zellweger doesn’t seem to be rehearsing any acceptance speeches just yet. Though she won several prizes for her portrayal of Tom Cruise’s bride in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, she didn’t score an Oscar nomination, so perhaps she’s rightly cautious. ”Well, that’s great, that’s very nice,” she says, perched so far to one end of a very long hotel-suite couch that she looks as if she’s trying to hide. ”Thank you,” she goes on. ”That’s so nice. Thank you.” The eyes are squinting, the voice is a breathy sigh — the way she looks and sounds in the movie.