September 14, 2000

If Normalcy Makes You Sick …

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I must say that Nurse Betty really surprised me. Upon entering the theater, I expected another mindless comedy like Renee Zellweger’s recent film, Me, Myself, and Irene, in which Zellweger plays the role of the clueless heroine whose dilemmas are resolved over the course of the film. It is true that Zellweger does, once again, embrace her seemingly typecasted role of the impressionable simple-minded, small-town girl with a happy fate, yet her adventures and the circumstances surrounding her character are atypical of silly comedies and often involve serious matters. The film itself, while exuding a particularly dark humor and at times, stark violence, conveys a profound commentary on America’s obsessive fascination with the icons of popular culture.

The story, written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, is about a widowed diner-waitress, Betty Sizemore (Zellweger), in a small Kansas town who flees to California in search of her favorite soap star. The catch is this: Betty, having witnessed her husband’s murder, is suffering from a consequent post-traumatic shock, which deludes her into thinking that she is the ex-fiancee of a daytime drama character, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets). Filling the audience with spite for melodramatic, egocentric soap stars like himself, Kinnear certainly gives a successful performance in the film.

Remember that famous Friends episode in which Brooke Shields plays Matt LeBlanc’s crazy stalker who believes that he is the actual doctor whom he plays on a soap opera? Nurse Betty similarly inclined us to feel a bit of apprehension and disgust toward the insanity of someone so neurotically misled. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to sympathetically cringe at the points in which Betty’s mental delusions cause her to make a fool out of herself in front of the soap actor. In addition to her unstable mental condition, Betty does not realize, for obvious reasons, that her husband’s murderers are pursuing her. Not only is she the witness to their crime, but unbeknownst to her, she is absurdly carrying around criminal goods in the trunk of her car.

The father-son team of hitmen, played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, arouses both comic relief and shocking thrill, due to their unwarranted outbursts of violence. The dynamics of these two actors are definitely worth observing, since one does not normally associate an actor such as Freeman, who usually plays serious and often messianic roles, with a hysterically crude comedian-actor like Chris Rock. Oddly enough, neither actors seemed to fulfill the audience’s expectations of them in playing the profound, thought-provoking sage and the hot-head funny man. Although the character of Charlie (Freeman) does appear to be constantly lost in intellectual thought, he is really just pre-occupied with fanciful, infatuated ideals of Betty. Paralleling the delusional character of Betty, Charlie similarly exemplifies the theme of America’s fixation with fantasy.

Yes, everyone loves Chris Rock, but for some reason, it seems that he does not achieve his full comedic potential in this film. Perhaps his mildness in humor is due to the fact that Wesley, played by Rock, is a quick-tempered character whose explosive nature is not counterbalanced with hilarity, but instead with a great deal of startling, bloody violence.

Many may feel that this film is a light-hearted divergence from director Neil LaBute’s famous black comedies such as In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). But, in fact, the dark coexistence of comedy and thrill that is characteristic of LaBute’s other films is readily apparent in many aspects of Nurse Betty.

At times in the movie, the plot drags and yet, I walked out of the theater feeling satisfied with the outcome and the rumination of ideas aroused by the film. But I really don’t know under which genre I would place this film. The plot, while undoubtedly farcical and mottled with gruesome scenes, also revolves around thought-provoking issues. And although personally tired of the way in which Zellweger puckers/purses her lips as she thinks, I still recommend this movie for its uniqueness in genre as well as its critical take on America’s growing obsession with television drama and pop culture.

Archived article by Audrey Wu