Richard A. Blake
Nurse Betty

Pity poor Kansas! Deposited there in the dead center of the country, propping up Nebraska and oppressing Oklahoma, the state has been typecast by Hollywood screenwriters. When a poor girl gets bonked on the head, she hies out of Kansas as fast as her red slippers or white sneakers will carry her. Even delirium and hallucination, say the movies, are better than Kansas.

Nurse Betty is the geographic grandchild of Wizard of Oz, and Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger) could be Dorothy’s granddaughter, even though her traumatic bonking is more psychological than meteorological. Earlier in her career, Betty began nursing school because she wanted to help people, but she ran out of money, dropped out and married Del (Aaron Eckhart), an oily used car salesman who would make a crocodile seem cuddly. Now a waitress in a diner in Fair Oaks, Kans., where the land is as flat as the people, Betty escapes into a fantasy world of soap operas, even at work. Never taking her glazed eyes from Reason to Love, she pours seconds for the lumpy proletariat without spilling a muddy drop on the Formica counter. She even has the show taped for an evening of personal reruns. The romantic lead is Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), a brilliant surgeon played by the actor George McCord, whose vanity is rivaled only by his insecurity. (With a writer-producer like the cigar-puffing she-wolf Lyla, played by Allison Janney, looking over his shoulder, Mussolini would feel insecure.) Betty finds love with an imaginary doctor more rewarding than endurance with a real-life moron.

For her birthday, the gang at the diner gives Betty a birthday cupcake to take home and a life-size cardboard cutout of her beloved doctor. Ol’ sensitive Del, the hubby from hell, has no clue. Eager to get to a business appointment, which includes a vigorous encounter with his receptionist, he gulps dinner while Betty stands patiently at the stove. Without noticing the miniature candle, Del takes a big bite out of her tiny birthday cake and then, losing interest, leaves the ruined present on his plate. Without anger or tears, Betty rearranges the debris and sticks the remaining crumbs together with icing. The image is a perfect symbol of her life as survivor. She is continually picking up the pieces of her life and putting them together with a sugary covering. Betty is vulnerable, to be sure, but resilient and even cheery in her vulnerability: Meg Ryan meets Sally Field. Usually passive to a fault, she gently asserts her independence by borrowing the one luxury car Del told her not to take from the lot. After all, it is her birthday.

Wisely, Betty berths her purloined Buick out of sight in the garage, while she sits alone in the den for a romantic evening with Dr. David on her VCR. She hears the voices of real people in the next room. Two unsavory gentlemen, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his younger partner Wesley (Chris Rock), have followed Del home. Their discussion in the living room grows heated. They seem displeased with Del. So displeased, in fact, that they literally scalp and murder him as Betty gapes from the scarcely open door to the den. What should a poor widow do? She closes the door and goes back to Dr. David.

The experience was Betty’s version of Dorothy’s tornado. The doctor explains her condition as a post-traumatic stress, or amnesia. An eye-witness to a brutal murder, Betty remembers nothing. While she is recovering, she will be in the protective custody of Sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince), whose intelligence seems overly extended by any transaction more complex than a parking ticket. Before Ballard can say, Aw, shucks, Betty heads for Hollywood and Dr. Ravell in her Buick with its mysterious cargo. Charlie and Wesley want the car, and they want it very badly. The cross-country chase is on.

The hoods don’t realize that their prey has migrated into an alternate reality. Her mental elevator has stopped between floors, and she has become a highly skilled nurse looking for a job in the hospital of Reason to Love. Until she finds an opening in the fantasy hospital, where she can meet her dreamboat doctor, she dons her starchy white cap and cute white uniform and applies to a real hospital. The personnel office is not impressed by cute. It wants a license and résumé. Betty is not deterred. License or no, she is a nurse. As luck would have it, she wanders into the scene of an accident at the front door of the hospital, and before the doctors arrive she saves a victim by performing a daring emergency procedure she has seen once on television. Move over, Nurse Nightingale! Here comes Nurse Betty.

The grateful girlfriend (Tia Texada) of the victim offers Betty a room, and through her connections at the law office where she works, arranges to get Betty tickets to a charity reception whose featured guests will be the cast of Reason to Love. The scorpions of daytime television think Betty is another wannabe soap queen, using her sustained method interpretation of a nurse to crash the cast. Actor George, a.k.a. Dr. David, is in fact a wannabe director, who sees this unusual actress as his chance to put his mark on the show. And a little romance wouldn’t hurt. After all, he sees that Betty the nurse really seems interested in David the Doctor, even if he is George the Actor.

Betty, it turns out, is not alone in her fantasy world. Everyone wants a better life, and failing to achieve one in the real world, a dream world will do almost as well. Greg Kinnear makes George equally odious and pathetic in his attempt to use Betty to make the leap into big-time directing. Similarly, Morgan Freeman makes Charlie a wonderfully complex character. An aging hit man, drug dealer and all-purpose thug from Detroit, he dresses in Stetson and cowboy boots and flashes the badge of the Texas Rangers as he follows Betty’s trail. Does he really imagine himself on the other side of the law? After brutally killing her husband, Charlie gradually falls in love with his quarry. He keeps her photo taped to his dashboard, and in an extremely risky but successful scene, pretends to dance with her at the edge of the Grand Canyon. She has become his symbol of purity, representing the life he can never have, not even if he hits his last big score and retires to Florida. Wesley, his sidekick, acts as a foil for Charlie’s gentle side. He is a foul-mouthed killer, ever on the edge of a violent explosion: Find her, kill her, get the stuff and go home.

Renée Zellweger turns in a truly impressive performance. Her Betty is touching without becoming maudlin, and very funny without sinking into clownishness. From the opening scenes, in her pert waitress outfita costume that parodies a nurse’s uniformshe gains both respect and sympathy. She is not terribly smart, but she seems too good, too spunky to spend the rest of her life in that diner, with those nonentities in that town. Her withdrawal into the world of her own imagination seems perfectly reasonable, and we want her to succeed in whatever she wants to do with her life. She makes us believe that she is in fact a nurse, simply because we want to believe with her. She doesn’t deserve the real world that has been thrust upon her.

The director, Neil LaBute, and the writers, John C. Richards and James Flamberg, took an extraordinary risk, and miraculously they succeeded. The challenge lies in pulling together characteristics of a tremendous number of genre films, mixing them effectively, yet leaving the virtues of each intact. The core story is classic Hollywood weepy, a soapy women’s film, in which the abused but loyal wife finally steps out on her own and despite misunderstanding finally triumphs on her own terms. At the same time, the murder scene, the impromptu surgery and the other shoot-outs provide the guy thing, that is, blood and brutality. It’s a road picture, deriving from the literary tradition of the Odyssey or the Canterbury Tales. All the characters discover and reveal more of themselves as their journey continues. Charlie and Wesley provide the makings of a buddy film, as they embark on a traditional movie caper. It’s a satire on the movies’ favorite targetssmall-town America, the television industry and law enforcementyet oddly just about everyone emerges with some dignity, even Sheriff Ballard, the donut dauphin of Fair Oaks, Kans.

At the end, many of Betty Sizemore’s dreams come truenot the ones we would have expected and imagined, but those that are unequivocally hers. That is the whole point.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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