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State of the Union

Nurse Betty explores our national ennui and insanity through the fantasies of its lead characters

It sounds crazy to say this of a Neil LaBute movie, considering the dubious auteur's semipathetic thumping of his own hollow chest, but Nurse Betty moves like a classic. Unlike In the Company of Men (which touched a few nerves), and even less like Your Friends and Neighbors (which anaesthetized them), in this one LaBute has wisely ditched his own choppy bombast in favor of a crackling script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, to the benefit of all concerned. The resulting piece ruminates upon the American condition, deliciously detailing the whimsy, violence, intolerance and shallow fantasies that fuel this nation. Oh, yeah, and it's funny.

Our heroine here is a wispy blond named Betty (Renée Zellweger) who deftly pours coffee at the Tip Top Cafe, somewhere in the sticks of Kansas. Since Betty is obsessed with her own version of Oz -- in this case, a cheesy L.A. soap opera called A Reason to Love -- she's in dire need of exploring her own "Dorothy." In her mind she's already off to meet the wizard of love, the show's Dr. David Ravell, a heartthrob played by a mediocre actor called George McCord (Greg Kinnear). Betty's world is tiresome and hopelessly lacking in inspiration, as is aptly summed up by her birthday "celebration," which consists of a photo shoot with a cardboard cutout of Dr. Ravell, a blow-off from her best friend, Sue Ann (Kathleen Wilhoite), and thinly veiled insults from her husband's secretary, Joyce (Sheila Kelley), whom her husband has been schtupping. Ironically, her wretched spouse, Del (Aaron Eckhart), summons the tornado that ends up whisking Betty away.

But the storm is already on its way, in the form of Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), two outsiders who have blown into town with a mysterious motive. Clearly a master and ward, Charlie soon approaches Del with a stealthy resolve and a score to settle, but Wesley is much less patient, instigating one of the two gratuitously ugly segments that bookend the movie. Quick as a flash, effeminate investigative reporter Roy (Crispin Glover) and domineering Sheriff Ballard (Pruitt Taylor Vince) are on the case, but Betty has already blocked the grisly experience from her memory and swiped one of her husband's cars to head west. Her mission: to find her true love at the mythical Loma Vista Hospital in Los Angeles.

Because there's a clever hook in nearly every scene, it would spoil far too much to reveal more of the plot, except to suggest that the writers were clearly influenced by both Thelma & Louise and The King of Comedy, the former for feminist empowerment, the latter for delusional play-acting. (There's quite a bit of Soapdish in here as well.) But those movies only hint at the charm of this quirky and astute adventure, which bears a closer resemblance, in tone and gratification, to Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King.

LaBute, like Gilliam, offers a much more balanced approach to our national ennui and insanity than Ridley Scott (Thelma) or Lawrence Kasdan (Grand Canyon) could provide a few years ago. While The Fisher King wore its mythic subtext on its sleeve, Nurse Betty couches its archetypes in everyday conventions, which are likely to make it quite the accessible crowd pleaser. There's a wealth of relatable material at hand, especially as the fantasies of Betty and Charlie lead them toward their intermingled destiny.

Writing a good screenplay is not difficult; you just follow the paradigm. But writing a great script, especially an unpretentious and perceptive one, requires the sort of energy that earned co-screenwriters Richards and Flamberg the Best Screenplay award at Cannes for Nurse Betty. Not only is the material at once subtly and outrageously funny, it is drenched in tiny grace notes that make even this preposterous journey seem real. Witness, for example, the Midwestern baby-factory that is Betty's best friend, or Betty's supervisor in L.A., who jokes at the confused woman's glowing appraisal of the nonexistent hospital, "You just described all of Southern California." A lot of movies cough up their best material in the first ten minutes, then decay for another 90. Not so here.

Another reason Nurse Betty is so much more satisfying than In the Company of Men or Your Friends and Neighbors is that it lacks LaBute's trademark queasy, almost confessional tone. Stewing in their own juices, those films were provocative without being productive, oozing with cheap, rushed infatuation on one hand, playing cutesy and mean on the other. Here, enhanced by some perfectly focused set design from Charles Breen, the characters are fleshed out as people rather than just warring ideologies.

If LaBute has a gift, it's selecting and directing fine actors, and even Eckhart avoids merely punching the clock. Rock is extremely funny, ladling his venom on whoever is available, calling Freeman "Bojangles" and spewing his adolescent theories of murder all over Betty's saltine-cracker grandparents in their sitting room. As with most of the characters here, he feels like an open wound seeking a balm, which makes the curses and conflicts all the more amusing and touching. The exchanges between Zellweger and Kinnear also pack the most ticklish sort of discomfort.

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