*Nurse Betty (R)
Long live the Hollywood genre movie. In the right hands, the expectations and demands created by working within a familiar structure can prove extremely rewarding, and, as Exhibit 1, I offer Nurse Betty.
The conventions that Nurse Betty follows are familiar Hollywood genres. There's the amnesia story, the road-trip-across-the-West story, the killers-in-pursuit-of-something-the-target-doesn't-know-she-has, as well as a host of others, all very conventional tales, here beautifully mixed up, commented upon, and reformed.
Betty (Renee Zellweger), a sweet waitress in a small town diner is passionate about two things: She wants to be a nurse, and she loves a heart-surgeon character on a daytime soap opera.
Unfortunately for Betty, she's married to Del (Aaron Eckhart), a sleazy used car salesman. Del gets mixed up in some scary illegal business and is visited by two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) who murder him in his living room while, unbeknownst to the killers, Betty watches. Betty is so traumatized by the murder that she suffers post-traumatic shock and believes that she was engaged to the doctor that she was watching on the television at the moment of the murder.
So, in the tradition of the best road trip movies, she leaves her sleepy little town and drives to L.A. to find her doctor. Believing that she is a nurse, she finds a job in a hospital due, in part, to the nursing skills that she's gained watching television hospital dramas. She meets the actor who plays Dr. Ravell (Greg Kinnear) who is utterly enamored by what he believes to be her incredible method acting. Meanwhile, Charlie-the-hit-man (Freeman), a sensitive killer who loves symphonies and walking in the rain, and his younger, vicious side-kick, try to track down Betty.
Within this somewhat complicated plot, writer John C. Richards manages to weave together a terrific narrative structure that allows each genre to feed into the other. The very graphic murder (gangster movie) toward the beginning of the film doesn't simply serve as gratuitous violence but lends gravity and suspense to the comedy that follows. At the same time, the pure lighthearted pleasure of Betty's journey through the country (road trip movie), again darkens as we realize that this real innocent, this tabula rasa (amnesia movie) is headed into the big bad world. Woven throughout is the real and imagined world of the soaps which, rather than being ridiculed, is elevated by Richard's careful and empathetic writing.
Very fine performances by both Freeman and Zellweger help fulfill the film's complex agenda. Freeman's gravity as he slowly falls in love with an imagined Betty is terrific to watch, especially at the climax while Zellweger's pouty-lipped vulnerability makes you just cringe in wanting to protect her. All in all, director Neil LaBute has managed to construct a suspenseful, bittersweet fantasy out of bits and pieces of this and that. Genre has rarely looked so good.