Neil LaBute’s screwy comedy “Nurse Betty” is a daffy trip through the comical world of post-traumatic stress disorder and unhealthy obsessions, with some surprising depth to it. It’s also very funny, though not nearly as much or as often as you’d hope.
Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger), a Kansas diner waitress, is hooked on the soap opera “A Reason to Love,” mainly because it helps her escape her loveless marriage with Mullett-haired used-car salesman Del (Aaron Eckhart). She’s so caught up in this soap opera, in fact, that when she sees Del get killed by a couple of thugs he double-crossed (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, making a surprisingly good comedy team, considering the dignity of the former and the crassness of the latter), she wigs out and heads out to L.A. to meet Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear) — not the actor who plays him, but the actual character, whom she now believes to be real and to whom she thinks she was once engaged.
She finds him — well, George McCord, the actor — at a party and soon he and his soap opera industry friends think she’s a really dedicated actress who’s trying to get a role on the show, and that all this talk about their “history” together is improv.
This is when the film is at its funniest, when Betty is delusional and everyone else thinks she’s just a swell actress. The film begins to weaken when she’s brought back to reality. It’s LaBute’s style to be harsh and dreadful (“In the Company of Men” exemplifies that) while still being at least darkly funny, but the scenes of Betty’s awakening aren’t funny. They’re even mildly disturbing, in a way, as Zellweger has made the sweetly delusional gal so sympathetic, one almost wishes she COULD be “Nurse Betty,” Dr. David’s former fiancee.
While all this is going on, the philosophizing old-timer Charlie (Freeman) and his impetuous apprentice thug Wesley (Rock) are trying to track Betty down, as the car she drove off in has something valuable of theirs in its trunk.
Where LaBute and screenwriter John C. Richards score is in the dovetailing of the plots. As Betty pursues a TV character who doesn’t exist, Charlie start pursuing a sophisticated, graceful Betty that he has created in his mind based on what he’s learned from talking to her friends and family. That both Betty’s and Charlie’s dreams turn out to be less than accurate is achingly poignant, elevating the film above mere screwball wackiness (this is a movie where things happen just as conveniently as you please, but you don’t mind), up to something just a little more insightful.
Freeman is great as always as the hired bad guy, rhapsodizing over Betty and dreamily staring out over the Grand Canyon while his young partner complains every step of the way. Rock really starts to come into his own here; not just any actor could play opposite Morgan Freeman and get away with it.
Kinnear is perfectly cast as the smarmy soap actor. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to do much more than be Dr. David Ravell, a fatuous part for which he is well-suited.
The film warms up very slowly, however, almost infuriatingly so. And there are undeniably some slow points throughout it. But its originality and sheer wacked-out likability compensate for its weaknesses in pacing.
B (; )