Love to Loathe Ya, Baby

One brain cell short of a pair: Renée Zellweger in <i>Nurse Betty</i>

One brain cell short of a pair: Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty

Crazy-girl power--or something--is the theme of Nurse Betty, the latest movie by Neil "I hate you" LaBute. That's sorta surprising, coming from the writer-director of In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, both of them goofily misanthropic and gynephobic "art" films. But a girl can leave this new movie smiling, murmuring about how cute Renée Zellweger is--and, within half an hour, feel increasingly disturbed, as if she had just run into a sociopathic ex-boyfriend. (Maybe you know the guy--he calls you a goddess and whatnot, but you still feel shitty afterward.)

One major reason for that unease is a violent scene that sets the whole plot of Nurse Betty in motion. To put it bluntly, it's the most pornographically sick thing I've ever seen in a mainstream movie--and I was covering my eyes! It doesn't matter that the actual victim is a white man. Like alcoholism and Christian rock, ultraviolence hurts everyone. Plus, we (and Zellweger's Nurse Betty) are its target witnesses. Without Betty's horror, and our kinetic empathy, the rest of the movie would be beyond absurd. As it is, it's merely confused and unrewarding.

Nurse Betty follows an angelic Kansas waitress, Betty (Zellweger), who, in a fit of temporary insanity, sets out on a cross-country quest for her true love--a fictional doctor (Greg Kinnear) on her favorite soap, A Reason to Love. Naturally, she's also being hunted by two Tarantinian hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). It also turns out that being "charming and relentless," if insane, can make dreams come true--even if they're not the dreams one had at the beginning.

In a way, it feels sad to insult LaBute, since--if his movies are any indication--he's a deeply lonely, self-loathing guy, and his art probably represents a heroic effort to grapple with that. Then again, his need to be heard pollutes my air and promotes a worldview that's based on not love, but fear. (And isn't that a sin--right up there with elder abuse and sabotaging one's benefactors?)

That was the trouble with LaBute's first two movies: Examining human psychology was not their point. The goal--or at least the effect--was to create an ugly world and then force us to dwell in it, perhaps so the filmmaker would not feel so alone there. That can be one of the great things about art, too--especially film, and even love: its infinite superstructure of nonverbal communication. A lover says nice things to you (or doesn't), but your heart knows the truth--by the weight of his hand at the small of your back, by the particular curve of his voice around your name. A movie lets you know, too, without ever saying so, how the filmmaker feels about you. And though LaBute has tried to love you this time, the best he can do is to want to love you.

All of which makes Nurse Betty sound more coherent than it actually is. After several weeks of chewing on the thing, I still don't know what its purpose is, except a general stretching-out, in all directions, for the director. Give LaBute credit for taking risks: This film is trying to do 14 things at once, like a less cute cousin of Magnolia. A huge chunk of its effort is spent borrowing elements from other films: the ear scene from Reservoir Dogs; the bumbling, comic Midwesterners from Fargo; the likable (nay, even moral!) hit men from Pulp Fiction; the mistaken identities on a soap opera set à la Tootsie; the references to The Wizard of Oz à la Wild At Heart; The Wizard of Oz itself.

Okay, you get the point. Part of you watches this stitched-together Frankenstein and thinks, Oh, this must be meaningful--he's making a comment on art and filmmaking. But no: He's just doing what everyone else is doing these days--searching for vision by recycling others'.

Compared to LaBute's previous films, Nurse Betty at least has enjoyable (if not believable) characters. But LaBute doesn't really create people; he constructs collections of humanlike behaviors that lack cohesion even at their most elegant. (At their worst, they're golems sculpted from bile and Wonder Bread.) Zellweger tries hard to fight this, and LaBute does, too. With many tender, lingering shots of Betty's faux-artless smile, we understand that we are meant to love her. Zellweger's dignity and intelligence are appreciated--but they still feel like her dignity and intelligence, not Betty's. Zellweger spends the entire film struggling to make the proverbial silk purse, and the effort is obvious.

Now, I don't mean to rejoice over this film's problems, because it'd be great to have a movie that really does believe in the triumph of good over evil, and femininity over machismo. And the message of Nurse Betty--at least the overtly stated one--rocks: A young woman doesn't need any man at all, real or fake. That's true, goddamn it, truer than LaBute could possibly imagine. But somehow, the message doesn't stick in the heart, because Nurse Betty isn't someone with whom any intelligent woman could identify. Does she have more than two brain cells to rub together? Probably, but we're not sure. We actually get more of the Freeman character's inner life than Betty's. Which is to say that, in the end, this is a film about hunting a woman. And though LaBute sets the woman free, the movie feels a little sorry to do so.

Maybe it's time to admit that Neil LaBute, Art House Auteur, is something like Jim Carrey, Comic Genius, or Al Gore, Viable Candidate, or Christina Aguilera, Fascinating and Beautiful Girl. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided these concepts were plausible, marketable. Somewhere along the line, people needed a comic genius, a viable candidate, and a fascinating and beautiful girl. To paraphrase Woody Allen, success comes to those who show up (especially if they're white). So a few key people mistook LaBute's self-conscious style and confounding lack of vision for an actual vision. And then other people agreed that he was worth watching and discussing over wine spritzers and organic baby greens after the show.

Well, my friends and neighbors: We've been duped. Neil LaBute himself has nothing to be ashamed of--he does his job to make the best possible movies he can. But like Freeman's hit man fantasizing about his quarry, cineastes have pinned all kinds of wishful thinking on this guy. The depressing truth is that Neil LaBute just isn't that good.


Nurse Betty starts Friday at area theaters.