Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nurse Betty


I've been very busy on the set of Flying Down To Reno, the musical remake of Airport '75 over the last few days. Principal photography on the big departure number set in the airport lounge and my rousing tap finale have wrapped. We're now working on the smaller, interior scenes of the plane in flight. Most of this consists of group scenes and reaction shots so, while I am not the center of attention, I must concentrate mightily to remain in character as the glamorous Vicki Lester whose life is endangered by a mid-air collision. I have one big solo number to film next week; my reflective ballad on life and love entitled I Could Have Crashed All Night and then it's a wrap for me and I can concentrate on my other August engagements. 

Norman has several days off from his filming of Waterworld II: The Gills Have Eyes and has returned home to Chateau Maine from San Diego. Apparently one of the killer whales at Sea World got into the set yesterday and destroyed a number of walls. I suppose it's one of the risks of filming in aquatic amusement parks. The crowd in the stands seemed to enjoy the show, especially when the whale surfaced balancing a large model oil tanker on her nose before eating it. Norman and nurse Tameka are spending the day shopping for new clothes. Most of what he took to San Diego has unsightly salt water stains. Nurse Tameka has been given strict instructions that if their trip to Beverly Center includes a stop at Sky Bar, she's to limit him to two double martinis as I really don't want to put up with his singing bawdy sea shanties all evening. 

With Nurse Tameka dispatched, I decided to settle in with another nurse for my ritual film break and slipped Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty into the home theater system for a viewing. LaBute came to attention in 1997 on the strength of his first low budget feature, In the Company of Men and, in both stage and film, has become known for his bleak dramas which explore the seamier side of the human condition. Nurse Betty is a bit of departure for him as it was billed as a variation on the traditional road comedy and it is his first work where he is not working from his own script. (Screenplay by John C. Richards). The film received mixed reviews from the major critics and was not a financial success. 

The film is the story of Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger), a waitress from a small town in Kansas. She's married to Del (Aaron Eckhart - a LaBute regular), a sleazy used car salesman with a thing for his secretary and a bad blond mullet. Betty is unhappy in her marriage and her life and yearning for something more. This is made apparent by the many visual references to The Wizard of Oz. I lost count of how many outfits in blue and white check gingham with white muttonchop sleeves the costume department poured her into; all she needed were the ruby slippers. Her Oz is the world of a General Hospitalesque soap opera called A Reason to Love. Del gets involved in a sleazy stolen car deal which brings a father (Morgan Freeman) /son (Chris Rock) team of hitmen to town. Del ends up being brutally murdered by the two, unkowingly witnessed by the shy Betty. This trauma causes her to go into a fugue state and she becomes convinced that her soap opera world is real and that she's really the fiancee of David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), the character played by heart throb George McCord on the soap. Off Betty goes in a stolen red LeSabre (the ruby slippers?) to Los Angeles to find her man with the hitmen in pursuit. 

The film then becomes an uneasy cross between a Western road movie, full of iconographic images of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, and a melodrama as Freeman and Rock search for Betty across the west and Betty settles in to LA with a Hispanic roommate, Rosa (Tia Texada) and a nurse persona based on the soap opera. She actually gets a kind of nursing job after an absolutely unbelivable sequence involving a parking lot shoot out and her recognition and treatment of a tension pneumothorax. She eventually finds David/George who thinks she's an actress with an unbelivable gift for staying in character and she's drawn into the world of the soap, joining her own private Oz. David/George, as the wizard, is eventually revealed to be not what he projects and eventually, all the plot threads come together in a finale that seems lifted from another film. The tone is jarringly different from all that's gone before and seems like a cut sequence from Pulp Fiction more than anything else. This keeps the film from succeeding and I spent the last piece of the film laughing at all the wrong moments. 

The film's major interest is its remarkable cast. Morgan Freeman, one of our finest actors, gives a performance balanced on a knife edge between quiet dignity, obsession, and determined ruthlessness. He has a number of stellar moments and is unforgettable in his last scenes as his plans unwind. Chris Rock, as his son, shows that he can handle drama as well as smart ass comedy. I found his high strung and violent character convincing. Renee Zellweger has a difficult job as Betty. She has to induce audience sympathy through her madness, deal with the Oz overtones with a perfectly straight face, and make any number of character transitions. For the most part, she succeeds. Where she struggles, the fault seems to be more with the writing than with her innate instincts and gifts. Greg Kinnear has much less to do than the other leads as he's only a TV face until half way through the film. His scenes with Zellweger are charming and show his usual unaffected leading man style. The supporting cast is equally stellar. Aaron Eckhart steals all his scenes as Betty's doltish husband. Alison Janney is wonderful as the soap opera scribe/producer behindA Reason to Love. Crispin Glover holds his neurotic tics to a minimum as a journalist and Tia Texada is a real find as Betty's new best friend. 

LaBute seems uneasy working in a comic medium and jokes are thrown away or are awkwardly timed. I'm not even sure if he knows whether his overall tone should be dramatic or comic and the wavering 'dramedy' doesn't really play to his strengths as a director. The dialog is sharp and well written and there's nothing predictable in the plotting but the film feels inconsistent overall, either due to LaBute's difficulties with the project or too many studio hands with too many agendas pulling at the finished product. It's unclear which. He also has a tendency to overuse color filters for emotional effect with the Kansas scenes all being tinted blue, the desert sequences orange, and the LA sequences in more normal color. I found this somewhat jarring. 

The DVD contains the film in its original theatrical proportions. Sound and picture transfer are fine although there were some glitches at chapter transitions. Bonus goodies include two commentary tracks - one with LaBute and the principal cast (marred somewhat by Zellweger's tendency to giggle throughout) and one with LaBute and principal staff. There are also cut scenes (mainly brief episodes with Freeman and Rock on their odyssey but also one long sequence from early in the film when the two track down Del's partner in crime which ends with an even more brutal murder - I imagine it was cut to keep some sympathy for the two in the minds of the audience); all of the soap opera 'episodes' seen on TV throughout the film, the usual teaser trailers, and the shooting script accessible through DVD-ROM features. 

Birthday cupcake. Blind coffee pouring. Greg Kinnear cut-out. Gratuitous mullet removal. Grand Canyon at night. Televised aortic trauma drama. Cheap motel rooms. Latina lawyers. Charity gala. Imperiled gold fish. Gratuitous Roman holiday. 

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