By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The skeptics’ rap on Neil LaBute is that he’s a master of dramatizing the casual savagery in men’s souls, but jeez already. It’s not my rap, I’m just saying: The writer and director of In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and Bash is known, and sometimes bashed, for creating characters whose blandness can’t mask their biliousness, and for caging those characters in claustrophobically generic settings — an office cubicle, a hotel room — without a prayer of ever seeing the metaphoric or actual light.

The dare has been this: Could LaBute handle space and movement and specificity and a story not of his own (obsessive) construction? The answer is, Oh my, yes: Nurse Betty, which he directed from a screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, is, unclaustrophobically, one of the best movies of the year — a leap of storytelling as joyously fluid as In the Company of Men is intentionally constricted. It’s one of those exciting experiences that restimulates an appetite for the medium after a summer of swallowing tasteless, predictable pap.

Of course, the problem with selling such a tangy flavor — especially from so famously dyspeptic a vendor as LaBute — is that the movie eludes the usual store-bought product categories. As with such one-of-a-kinds as Election, Rushmore, or Go before it, Nurse Betty doesn’t fare well in trailers or ads. Seeing 30 seconds of Renée Zellweger’s muffin-fresh face in a commercial, or watching a moment of her creeping behind cars, clutching a cardboard cutout of Greg Kinnear, gives no sense of the springiness and focus of Zellweger’s performance — her best, far expanding her charms in Jerry Maguire — or of Kinnear’s dancerly skill at playing a soap opera actor playing a doctor. Indeed, there’s no way to encapsulate the bigness of heart with which Nurse Betty expands to embrace creation as majestically real as the Grand Canyon, as powerfully fake as TV.

Anyway, Zellweger’s Betty isn’t even a nurse. She’s a coffee-shop waitress in Fair Oaks, Kan., the wife of a philandering and abusive car salesman (played by Aaron Eckhart, LaBute’s reliable muse when it comes to piggish manhood). Betty escapes her domestic prison through an addiction to A Reason to Love, a daytime soap opera starring George McCord (Kinnear) as dashing Dr. David Ravell. And she’s curled up alone in the den one night, watching a tape of the day’s episode (”I know there’s someone special out there for me,” the dreamboat doc sighs), when her husband stumbles back home with two strangers, unaware that Betty’s in the house, and proceeds to fumble a shady business deal. The elegant older gent, Charlie (Morgan Freeman), becomes angry; the younger, more apoplectic Wesley (Chris Rock) goes ballistic.

Surreptitiously witnessing the horrifying melee, Betty copes by disappearing into a fugue state: She transforms herself — we watch it in Zellweger’s crinkly eyes — becoming another woman, Nurse Betty, for whom Dr. Ravell is, she knows, her someone special. And she calmly sets out for the fictitious ”Loma Vista Hospital” in California to find him, with the brutal enforcers Charlie and Wesley on her trail.

LaBute has said he was drawn to the script because, with its surges of comic chaos and its extended itinerary (including a detail-perfect soap opera set, the wide-open Western landscape, and Rome, all displayed to advantage by high-class French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier), no one would have expected him to be here. On the contrary, Nurse Betty twists and curves in arcs suited to LaButian exploration: Who is our real self and who’s the fake? Can violent impulses coexist with goodness? Is reality any less unpredictable than fantasy? (The superb screenplay won an award at Cannes this year for good reason.)

But in a stunning departure from the director’s previous fictional friends and neighbors, every single character here, down to the most minor waitress or the Oklahoma bartender who listens to Betty’s saga, is connected to others in believably complicated loops of love, cooperation, and trust. And the actors respond like sunflowers to sun. All of Freeman’s innate elegance is brought to bear on Charlie’s protective relationship toward mouthy Wesley (whom even Rock, spitting geysers of wit, keeps in proportion), as well as on the grizzled African-American hitman’s romantic idealization of peachy white Betty. Kinnear, who makes it look so easy, gives shallowness new depth in his hilarious relationship with his producer (Allison Janney, nailing another great little role) as well as in his entanglement with the hypnotic Betty.

As with all good uses of enchantment, Nurse Betty deposits us, in the end, back where we started — but different, changed, with new ways of looking. And this includes the way we look at Neil LaBute. A