- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

''Nurse Betty," which combines crackpot pandering with a picaresque format, pretends to champion the submerged aspirations of an unhappy housewife. Betty Sizemore, deceptively soft and vulnerable in the person of Renee Zellweger, works as a part-time waitress in her hometown of Fair Oaks, Kan., where good-for-nothing spouse Del (Aaron Eckhart) is a Buick salesman, blatant philanderer and part-time drug smuggler.

Betty's principal emotional consolation comes from a television soap opera, "A Reason to Love." The show's resident paragon, Dr. David Ravell (portrayed by Greg Kinnear as actor George McCord), is the object of Betty's star-struck devotion. Coincidentally, Dr. Ravell loved and lost a nurse named Betty several seasons earlier.

Betty is tucked away in the den watching a favorite episode of "A Reason to Love" on the VCR when Del is confronted by enforcers Charley and Wesley, humorously disreputable roles for Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, respectively. One thing leads to another, and Del is slaughtered hideously. A furtive eyewitness, Betty goes into a walking trance.

She disappears in a Buick LeSabre from Del's lot, a vehicle that just happens to contain the drug stash Charley and Wesley were commissioned to retrieve.

With her memory on the blink, Betty has decided to follow her heart's desire and seek out Dr. Ravell in Los Angeles, believing herself to be the Nurse Betty he lost to fictional vicissitudes. The hit men follow, kibitzing and squabbling as they go. Charley cultivates an infatuation with the fugitive that seems to mimic Betty's thing for Dr. Ravell. It steams Wesley, the designated hothead and loose cannon.

Director Neil LaBute, who made a notorious name for himself as the writer-director of the vicious social satires "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," tends to belabor the caustic and misanthropic. Writers John C. Richards and James Flamberg practice a mellow, equivocal method, alternating menace and whimsy, shock and solicitude. It turns out to be a compatible match of suspect outlooks, because the director's transparent nastiness is cushioned by an equally transparent sappiness.

Implicitly, Betty is a stand-in for the most credulous members of the audience. The despicable, short-lived Del delivers a contemptuous pan of Betty and her kind: "People with no lives watching people with fake lives." The more sympathetic view, which the filmmakers purport to share, is summarized by kindly folks: "She just wanted something out of life," and "Somebody deserves the fairy tale."

Skeptics will feel free to doubt the sincerity of entertainment-industry insiders who profess to encourage every Betty-wannabe who might be tempted to follow a pipe dream to Hollywood.

But is Betty really a deserving psychotic? She's a conspicuous bundle of yearning, no doubt, with Miss Zellweger drawing on the traditions of Shirley Temple and Shirley MacLaine while accentuating her own baby-faced and bleary susceptibility.

Landing on the doorstep of actor McCord, Betty amazes him with her insistence on being a lost romance. He takes her for a brilliant prankster or an acting natural.

The best sequences are simulated episodes of "A Reason to Love," enhanced by a savory troublemaker, Chloe, impersonated by Elizabeth Mitchell. Betty supposedly returns from amnesia when McCord, genuinely touched and flattered by her ardor, tries to insert her into the show. Shocked back to her senses when urged to "act," Betty is allowed to get absurdly condescending toward McCord, further humbled by the writers' sorriest words of wisdom: "You don't need any man. It's not the 1940s. You've got yourself."

Wow. And what a prize package of unbound coyness and vanity is the self-sufficient Betty. As the show's producer, Lyla, the towering and astringent Allison Janney, an impressive figure of womanly authority, gets to toss a little cold water on the Betty mystique. "Charming and relentless will go far," she quips. A pity the writers didn't let Lyla guide them out of the vale of delusion.

One and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Nurse Betty"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; allusions to drug crime)

CREDITS: Directed by Neil LaBute. Screenplay by John C. Richards & James Flamberg.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

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