Betty Boop

Nurse Betty shows director's soft touch

?Opens Sept. 8

Nurse Betty poses the question: Is filmmaker Neil LaBute more cynical when he's trying to be acerbic or trying to be sweet? With his starkly efficient debut In the Company of Men and his slumping sophomore effort Your Friends & Neighbors, the Mormon took such a scorched-earth view of the battle of the sexes, he made humanity look like merely devils and doormats. For his third feature, Nurse Betty, he relegates the darkness mostly to the edges of a sentimental comedy. A quirky and unpredictable diversion with many puckish performances and amusing encounters, Nurse Betty's fairy-tale ap-proach ultimately fails to conceal the cold calculation and phony contrivances in the mix.

When we meet title character Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger), she's no nurse but a beloved waitress in the hamlet of Fair Oaks, Kan. Her only odd trait is an obsession with the soap opera "A Reason to Love," which is so pronounced that on her birthday, her co-workers give her a life-sized cardboard cut-out of heart-throb "Dr. David Ravell" (Greg Kinnear).

Meet Betty's boorish, car salesman husband Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart) and you won't wonder why Betty seeks escapism. Del's misdeeds extend to more than simply philandering and a mullet-style haircut, however, and he runs afoul of two tough out-of-towners, played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. While catching up with her "stories" on tape, Betty witnesses the duo commit a ghastly act of violence in her home.

Reeling from post-traumatic stress, Betty becomes convinced that "A Reason to Love" is real, Dr. Ravell is her old flame, and she should reunite with him. Taking off in a 1987 Buick LaSabre borrowed from Del's lot, she sets off for Los Angeles, unaware that she's under suspicion by the police, and that the two hitman are pursuing something in the trunk of her car.

The Kansas scenes of Nurse Betty are reminiscent of David Lynch in his "Twin Peaks" period, down to the chiming music and fine cups of coffee. Frequently the depiction of Betty and such small-towners as reporter Crispin Glover and sheriff Pruitt Taylor Vince betray a snobbishness about ordinary Americans, that "commoners" (that is, anyone who lives between the East and West coasts) are automatically amusing. When a new friend tells Betty that her life's highlight was a trip to Europe, Betty exclaims "The Europe?!!" a condescending joke that the film uses twice.

With its infrequent but brutal action flourishes, the film's equally derivative of the Tarantino-esque ironic crime drama, especially its treatment of Freeman and Rock as bickering, mismatched hitmen. But when Freeman's role becomes as irrationally focused on Betty as hers is with her soap opera, the actor gives the film its greatest charge, as chilling a killer as he was in his star-making movie, Street Smart. On his last assignment (like a Lethal Weapon cop), he also turns his mission into a dreamy, quixotic quest.

When the film reaches Los Angeles, the characters become more realistic (if still stereotypical), as if scripters John C. Richards and James Flamberg are finally drawing from what they know. Betty's exploits prove reminiscent of Peter Sellers' Chance in Being There, another TV-centric innocent who lucks up. Fortuitously on the scene of a bloody shoot-out, she gets a job at a hospital, and at a subsequent reception she meets Kinnear's George McCord, the actor who plays Dr. Ravell. She addresses him as the character, and George, like producer Lyla (a queenly Allison Janney) mistakes Betty's unblemished delusions for a method actor's audition. Will Betty's bubble burst?

It's hard to believe that even a soap opera actor would be so dense, but Kinnear again winningly plays a charming smarmbag. It would be nice to see him do something besides the smug shtick of Mystery Men and Loser, and to show some of the flexibility he brought to As Good As It Gets. Rock gets off some amusing lines at his expense ("Hasselhoff blew you off the screen!") but isn't yet as commanding an actor as he is a comedian. Still, here you feel he's trying to learn some of Freeman's control and stillness, an attentive apprentice even as his character disdains his elder's advice.

Zellweger's openness helps carry the film through its shifts in tone, its logical impossibilities and its creepy subject matter. We root for Zellweger's Betty throughout, even though she becomes, in effect, a disturbed celebrity stalker, which in real life is no laughing matter. She needs to take care not to overdue the chipmunk smile and squinty-eyed cuteness, which can only sustain her for so long.

A perplexing winner of the Cannes Film Festival Best Screenplay award, Nurse Betty has plenty of fun at the expense of soap operas (English and Spanish) and has some memorably ethereal moments, as when "Que Sera, Sera" plays at a visit to the Grand Canyon. But the film all but sneers at realism, with coincidences and behaviors requiring a humungous suspension of disbelief. If that's not a problem, you'll enjoy its humor and acting, but otherwise its bid for happy endings will ring hollow. I had to balk at the unbearable lightness of Betty.