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A Reason to Dream: Renée Zellweger plays a woman with an attachment to soap operas in 'Nurse Betty,' directed by Neil LaBute.

Nursing Along

Director Neil LaBute tempers his mean streak in 'Nurse Betty'

By Jim Aquino

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to movies about romantic relationships between men and women in the last few years? They've moved away from the provocative dialogue of films like Chasing Amy and veered toward a big-screen-sitcom frothiness not seen since Doris Day's heyday, which is why playwright-turned-filmmaker Neil LaBute's cynicism about relationships is daring and refreshing. Love them or hate them, LaBute's bitter In the Company of Men and more farcical but equally cynical Your Friends and Neighbors have provoked discussions about the battle of the sexes (and their depictions of it) at a time when the best postfilm commentary most relationship movies can muster up is "So what do you think of Meg Ryan's hair in this one?"

But LaBute's volatile vision of mean misogynists and bedroom connivers can also be one-note and overbearing. Perhaps feeling uncomfortable with being pigeonholed as a director of downbeat material, LaBute takes a surprising turn with the fairy tale&-like Nurse Betty. On paper, it sounds like LaBute is succumbing to Hollywood's current preference for frothiness. In this satire about soap operas, celebrity stalkers and hit men, LaBute opts for a gentler tone, which will probably frustrate fans of his previous work. But for most of the film, he manages to avoid syrupiness, unlike what happened when Robert Zemeckis, once known for edgy satires like Used Cars, went middlebrow and made the earnest Forrest Gump.

Nurse Betty is the uneven and implausible but funny story of waitress Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger), a dreamer from Fair Oaks, Kan., who unconsciously creates a fantasy life based on her favorite soap, the fictional hospital drama A Reason to Love, after she's traumatized by seeing hit man Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his younger, impetuous partner Wesley (an intense Chris Rock) kill her car-salesman husband (Aaron Eckhart).

Betty, who never liked her husband or her life in Fair Oaks, flees the town and drives all the way to L.A. to become a nurse and snare her favorite Reason to Love character, the dashing Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). The film is also the story of Charlie, who, with a reluctant Wesley, follows Betty. In an unexpected twist, the older hit man falls in love with Betty and wants to settle down with her, just as she has become obsessed with Ravell.

LaBute eschews the moralizing that bogged down his earlier movies. The vile characters he created to illustrate his soapbox points about evil were more like cartoonish soap villains than the complicated schemers we'd really run into in office cubicles or bars. In Nurse Betty, LaBute finally presents a complex and recognizably human badman in Freeman's worn-out killer, who's the best at his profession, but sick of the bloodshed and yearning for more out of life. The Charlie character liberates Freeman, who's been stuck in a rut of banal, Sidney Poitier&-esque, black-man-as-eunuch roles. In the film's best scene, Charlie dreams he's having a nocturnal slow dance with Betty at the Grand Canyon, and it's an amusing moment, not just because of the funny sight of this brooding character breaking his icy veneer, but also because we see a romantic side Freeman has never expressed before. It's also the first time a LaBute movie's ever shown some soul.

Nurse Betty (R; 110 min.), directed by Neil LaBute, written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier and starring Morgan Freeman and Renée Zellweger, opens Friday at the Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View; at the Century Capitol 16 and 23 in San Jose, and at the Cinedome 7 in Newark.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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