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Sam North

Director: Neil LaBute
John C. Richards James Flamberg IT from the short story by John C. Richards
Morgan Freeman - Charlie, Renee Zellweger - Betty, Chris Rock - Wesley
Greg Kinnear - Dr. David Ravell, Aaron Eckhart - Del, Tia Texada - Rosa

It’s one of those curious phenomenons really, a summer of really bad films, such as the dire ‘What lies beneath’, a yawn fest that hoped to capture the Bruce Willis magic of ‘Sixth Sense’ and completely fails, using a tired old Hitchcock plot and worn out box office stars who look so indifferent to each other you just don’t care a fig who does what and when you do get an electric moment of special effects, you just don’t care any more. X-Men had some merits. Old warhorse Shakespearean actors battling it out with cartoonish characters. The special effects were great, it had style and some wit, a big dollop of Matrix style action but no plot. They always forget something, huh.

You might ask too as to why the serial killer movie has not yet gone the way of the western.

‘The Cell’ goes someway to reinvent the genre, borrowing the Matrix along the way. This is quite an intelligent thriller actually and Jennifer Lopex is captivating , as always. The special effects are pretty spectacular using South-West Africa’s wonderful dune landscape to good effect. But despite the style, it breakes no new ground, celebrates the worst kind of human and why do all the other actors have to be so wooden, as if they escaped from ‘Blake Seven’. Can we not use special effects to some more inspirational? Not content with one serial killer at the box office, we have another now in the shape of ‘The Watcher’ starring Keanu Reeves and Silence of the Lambs 2 coming along. Please no more. Let’s be nice and not rot anymore brain cells or encourage more loners to slice and dice attractive housewives and lonely men in search of thrills.

So, instinct told me that ‘Nurse Betty’ would be the ideal antidote to all this mayhem and it immediately restored my faith in human nature, well not quite an epiphany, but Renee Zellweger is always amusing and engaging to watch.

The plot is classic Hollywood. A downtrodden Kansas little ‘wife’ Betty , who is obsessed by a hospital soap opera accidentally witnesses the murder of her white trash, car salesman husband at the hand of two hitmen played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, a father and son team quite at odds with each other. The hit is gross, the man is scalped. Renee’s Betty is traumatised by the event and in classic withdrawal mode, retreats into the soap opera she so loves. She packs her bags and without even acknowledging her husband’s death, or the cops who are in her house, goes in search of her heart surgeon fiance Wesley (played by Greg Kinnear) working at a famous but ficticious hospital in Los Angeles. After all this is what Nurse Betty would do.

On the way Nurse Betty stops at a bar to watch her soap at the regular time, confessing to the bar owner that she’s on her way to met her heart surgeon fiance. Only slowly do people cotton on that Nurse Betty is not quite right somehow. On arriving at a Los Angeles hospital she immediately begins to save lives, just doing what people do on TV. She gets a job in a hospital pharmacy as they wait for her Kansas ‘papers’ and is befriended by a Hispanic woman who quite quickly becomes suspicious of her new friend’s grip on reality.

Meanwhile the hit men are on Nurse Betty’s trail. They can’t collect on the job until they find what was in her husband’s car and eliminate the witness to their deed. Yes, it has the flavour, but none of the craziness of ‘Wild at heart’. But at least Neil La Bute and his writers have given us a plot.

It is also the best film of the summer, by a long way. Deftly acted, well supported and genuinely human of slightly off the wall, Nurse Betty rewards you in many ways. It has the atmosphere of the best episodes of Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks and the mannerisms of the wonderful ‘Being John Malkovitch’. It isn’t trying to be anything more than a road movie, but somehow it hits all the right spots and has you rooting for Nurse Betty all the time and it’s entirely satisfying. It is as if someone has finally realised that we actually would like to go to a movie and fall in love with the characters they give us. We have an old hitman played wonderfully by Morgan Freeman, trying to do his last job so he can retire and leave the work to his woefully unsophisticated son. The embittered relationshio between father and son is great and Chris Rock truly plays up his impatience with an old man who is a cultured and well read hit man, a real romantic and has actually fallen for Nurse Betty, looking only at her picture on the dashboard. Greg Kinnear as the famous heart surgeon is weak, egotistical and a perfect soap star, his shallow ego taking advantage of Nurse Betty , possibly even suspecting she is wacko, but keen to exploit her knack for ‘improv’.

Perhaps I am guilty of reading too much into this screwball film, but aside from the violent beginning, this could easily have been a Frank Capra movie and the fact that it opened at No 2 at the Box Office in the USA early September reveals that there is a need for this kind of entertainment, a huge need in a summer of serially dull movies. Renee Zellweger as Nurse Betty is warm, engaging and you can easily seen why people loved her in ‘Jerry Maquire’ and why she has been chosen to play Bridget Jones.

If you are reading this in an archive in the depths of winter, well rent the video and have a good evening in for once. (Just don’t let the kids see the scalping). PS: Give Renee an Oscar for saving a bad summer.

© Sam North 2000

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