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'Nurse Betty'

'Nurse Betty' is a wonderful, offbeat comedy about a soap fan who heads west

Friday, September 08, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pardon me for feeling giddy.

'Nurse Betty'

RATING: R for strong violence, pervasive language and a scene of sexuality.

STARRING: Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Chris Rock.



CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


I have seen so many lousy movies of late, from "Coyote Ugly" and "Bless the Child" to "Autumn in New York," that I can't believe the real thing finally has arrived in the form of "Nurse Betty." Bless the fall films.

"Nurse Betty" is an offbeat comedy (with some R-rated violence) about a small-town waitress from Kansas who, like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," is transported to any number of fantasy worlds. She steps happily into some. Into others, she is unwillingly thrust.

Betty (Renee Zellweger) is a sweet-natured blonde with a long-buried desire to finish nursing school and a loathsome husband named Del (Aaron Eckhart). No wonder Betty is obsessed with a soap opera called "A Reason to Love," a showcase for actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear), who plays a saintly and widowed heart surgeon.

Television's Dr. David Ravell is a dreamboat, while car dealer Del wears his hair in an unattractive mullet, dries his hands on the kitchen curtains and helps himself to Betty's birthday cupcake, a gift from her co-workers. His thoughts on daytime drama devotees? "People with no lives watching other people's fake lives."

If that weren't enough, Del is having an affair with a co-worker and is secretly involved in some shady dealings. His decision to bring two unsavory characters, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), home proves a deadly misstep. Betty, who is quietly watching a tape of "A Reason to Love," is traumatized by what she surreptitiously witnesses. She goes into an altered state where she has no memory of the events and believes she's the former fiancee of Dr. Ravell.

She disappears in the middle of the night, with Charlie and Wesley determined to find her. Betty heads for Los Angeles, where her persistence and detailed daily viewing come in handy. Along the way, Betty encounters a fellow waitress who shares a life-affirming lesson, some real-life and fictional hospital employees, a Hispanic roommate and other assorted characters from over and under the rainbow.

"Nurse Betty," directed by Neil LaBute and written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, toys with a number of rich topics, including obsession, escape, illusion, image and the search for happiness or contentment. Charlie, for instance, initially suspects Betty could be a cunning woman but then begins to see her as a Doris Day type, a Dorothy in an "Oz" gingham gown.

Charlie is a philosopher and an old-school hitman -- a practitioner of the "three in the head, then they're dead" method of murder. He believes he's never killed anyone who didn't deserve it, and he has a surprisingly dear moment while fantasizing about Betty. He tries to educate Wesley in his ways, but the younger man is a trigger-happy hothead with an insatiable appetite for junk food.

Although "Nurse Betty" is exceedingly well-cast, with Zellweger and Freeman standouts, it is no "Tootsie" or "Soapdish." It shows some of the dark dealings behind the soap set, but it never ignores or forgets why Betty fled the Midwest in the first place.

Still, Betty is a fairy-tale character who is asked, "Do you always get what you want?" And she says, "Almost never." That's true in movies, too. You almost never get what you want, but "Nurse Betty" gives you what you need at this time of the year.

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