Nurse Betty, the new film by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors), is wonderfully enjoyable all the way through until its last ten minutes when suddenly the wild and thrilling ride it has offered us comes to a dead end. The story concerns Betty (Renée Zellweger), a small-town waitress from Kansas unhappily married to Del (Aaron Eckhart), a boorish used car salesman who also deals in drugs. To make up for the lack of romance in her life, Betty obsessively watches television soap opera, especially a hospital show featuring the dishy Dr David Revel (Greg Kinnear), on whom she has rather a crush. This interest of hers only increases the contempt that Del feels for her anyway since, as he tells her, watching the soaps is for people who have no real life of their own.
LaBute is careful to make us dislike Del from the start. His neglect and ill-treatment of sweet Betty would be enough to accomplish this end, but he is also banging his slatternly secretary at work, and, of course, is involved in drug dealing. But is he not right about soap operas? Well, maybe and maybe not. Betty’s addiction to them only adds to her sweetness, after all, and when a horrible fate befalls Del in front of her eyes—he is murdered by representatives of some unnamed Mr Big from whom he has stolen drugs—her retreat into a soap opera fantasy seems at once to confirm Del’s dismissive opinion and to rebuke him for it. He’s a fine one to talk! Having got himself murdered in front of his wife, it ill-behooves him to find fault with her for seeking refuge in fantasy from such a “real life” as that.
This way through the film encourages us to find a more general idea in Betty’s temporary derangement, which takes her to California to find her Dr David, to whom she now imagines herself engaged. Reading the film in this way, we might take it as a kind of paean to popular culture as a kind of psychic insulation, the very embodiment of that “stupidity” with which George Eliot once said the souls of the best of us had ever to be “well-wadded.” It would not be in itself enough to make a good movie. The stupidity is too stupid for that, and the best parts of LaBute’s movie make savage fun of the shallowness and cynicism and self-absorption of those who produce the show when Betty, Candide-like, ultimately appears among them. But it looks like becoming the foundation of a splendid movie.
A second thread leading us through the maze is in the relationship between the two comic hit-men, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), who kill Del and then pursue Betty all the way to California. Not only is she an eyewitness to the murder (although, as they do not yet know, she has blotted it out of her memory) but she has also inadvertently taken the car in which Del has secreted the stolen drugs that the two men are charged with recovering. As Betty’s pilgrimage to meet her true but fictional love takes us towards some putative epiphany about the power of cliché, so the hit-men’s pursuit of her begins by looking like a cliché itself, a familiar variation on the even more familiar Tarantinian theme of killers doing a comic double act. At the same time, however, these two provide a running critique of the sentimental blandness which Betty has wrapped around herself like a blanket.
Here, we may be inclined to think, is the very image of that real world from which she seeks to protect herself in all its raucous, deadly hilarity. But not so fast! If the killers are real they are not without their own illusions, as we might expect from a cliché. In particular, the older of the two, Charlie, is made—with less of a sense of paradox about it than there would have been ten years ago—the representative of traditional American attitudes, of hard work and pride in craftsmanship. What he objects to in his hot-headed, pleasure-loving, show-boating younger colleague is “that make-a-statement, end-zone dance attitude” which he sees as “taking the country down.” Charlie is a traditionalist, a “professional” who lives by the rules of his trade and is looking forward to a well-earned retirement spent on his new boat. The only way for him to escape from such a multiplication of clichés is—what? For him to fall in love with Betty!
It is a brilliant if inherently unstable idea. Betty thus becomes for Charlie what the elusive Dr Revel is for Betty: the romantic ideal that each has conjured out of available ingredients as a proof against despair. There is a terrific scene near the end of the film in which Charlie presents himself and the moral squalor of his life to Betty as a precious object at the very moment when she thinks that he is about to rape and kill her. He calls himself “a garbage man of the human condition” whose existence is bound up with “people who would trade anything for a few more minutes of their rotten lives.” She, “beautiful and talented” as she is, is nothing like them and obviously the representative of his only hope of a world that is nothing like them. For Charlie, Betty redeems humanity itself.
Still terrified, she tells him, “I’m not who you think I am,” which is richly comic coming from one who, through most of the movie, is not who she thinks she is either.
Charlie increases the wonderful absurdity of the occasion by pleading his case with her. “I like walks in the rain and sunsets,” he says. “I read passionately…I’m conservative but flexible.” Most importantly, he concludes, “You and I have more in common than you might think.”
“I thought you were the garbage man of the human condition,” she says. Ah, yes. Reality at last!
But LaBute has one more trick to play on us. Charlie, to be sure, is in a manner of speaking rescued from his illusion with the help of a thrilling plot twist that I will not reveal here. But before he goes he leaves Betty with yet another illusion, another cliché, to replace that of the disappointing Dr Revel. “You never needed that doctor,” he tells her. “You don’t need any man. It’s not the ’40s, you know. You don’t need anybody. You know why? Because you’ve got yourself.” The banality, the patness of it is breathtaking. Surely this appeal to a shopworn feminist “self-esteem” mantra is but another twist of the road, a political cliché wheeled on to take the place of the now-exploded romantic ones?
But the film ends with LaBute’s embracing this cliché himself, and we cannot but think that such an act casts a retrospective doubt backwards over the subtlety and intelligence of all that has come before. Does he really believe in such simple political and psychological bridges over the yawning abysses of “the human condition” ? Or is this ending just a kind of postmodern shrug of the shoulders, an admission that he has left us with an entropic soup of a movie in which everyone is simply entitled to his own fantasy? Either way, it is a great disappointment at the end of what is otherwise a terrifically entertaining film.