The device of the fugue is by far the most fascinating aspect of Neil LaBute's latest film, Nurse Betty, in which Betty (Renée Zellweger), a diner waitress, settles comfortably into a thick confusion after accidentally witnessing her sleazy drug-dealer husband's murder. She instantly blocks out reality, and decides to drive from Fair Oaks, Kansas to Los Angeles in pursuit of her favorite soap-opera character, "Dr. David Ravell," whom she believes is her long-lost true love.
Unfortunately, the film barely gives Betty's unique mental state any significant analysis, and insists on spitting out a fast-paced, "wacky" plot instead, involving two determined hit men (Morgan Freeman and a very loud Chris Rock), the Fair Oaks sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and the Fair Oaks town reporter (Crispin Glover), all in hot, cross-country pursuit of the unsuspecting Betty. On paper, this all sounds so great--interesting, silly, action-packed, dramatic, full of potential. But what LaBute produces onscreen is surprisingly disappointing. Yes, the film is undeniably entertaining and boasts some really smart, authentic moments; and as in LaBute's other films (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors), he coaxes honest performances out of his cast. But what wrecks Nurse Betty is how smug and emphatically self-aware it is, how painstakingly, annoyingly, way-too-deliberately QUIRKY it becomes.
The idea of a fugue, of going through something so terrifying, so traumatic and unbearable, that the only way to respond is to just abandon who and where you are and become another person--this idea is the meat of the story, the propeller behind Betty's surreal adventure. Sadly, it gets shoved under the rug in favor of complex plot mechanics and cheap comedy: Are we just supposed to believe that all the characters in the film are as dumb as a post, and so blinded by Betty's angelic, aw-shucks charm that they won't even question why she acts like a complete loon? Sure, they catch on in the end, but even then, a wobbly climax gets in the way, and Betty just inexplicably snaps out of it with no explanation or repercussions. It's frustrating to watch this movie and know that it's lazily coasting by on superficial good looks: cute story, nice acting, but painfully blatant, cookie-cutter characters who bloom into paper dolls after only a few minutes of screen time. We've met these people before--somehow, somewhere, in other movies--and we are much too familiar with them: (1) Betty, the sweet, hard-working waitress, a blindly devoted wife, not a single flaw in sight; (2) Del (the always amazing Aaron Eckhart), the asshole husband, and of course, used-car dealer (come ON!), who fucks his floozy secretary and treats his perfect wife like dirt; (3) Wesley and Charlie, the Pulp Fiction-ish hit men who cuss a lot, bicker-banter à la Travolta and Jackson, and practice that nonchalant, casual violence everyone chuckles at these days; (4) the goofy small-town sheriff and his funny sidekick, making their millionth appearance in a movie; and (5) the golden soap star, a typical L.A. actor-type, self-absorbed but wanting "more." After watching these relentless caricatures strut around for 112 minutes, it's difficult to keep caring, and to keep rooting for Betty in earnest. Even with all the zany behavior, that ruthless quirk streaking through the film, and vague threats of real tension, I already knew I was gonna get a predictably happy ending, our lovely heroine unscathed. That is, after all, still part of the Movie Formula--something Nurse Betty, despite all of its protests, relies on much too heavily.