It isn't every day that you see your husband bloodily scalped (and then shot to death) in the living room. Maybe feckless Del Sizemore, sleazy used-car salesman and inept drug dealer, had it coming, but still--it's bound to have an effect on a girl.
In the case of Betty Sizemore (a divinely innocent Renee Zellweger), the effect is a spectacular one. A hash-house waitress in Fair Oaks, Kans., she has always been a fan of A Reason to Love, a television soap opera of the General Hospital type. Traumatized, in what the shrinks call a fugue state, she completely enters the soap's slightly tacky alternative reality. Convinced that its leading hunk, Dr. David Ravell (the amusingly actorish Greg Kinnear), is her long-lost fiance, she sets off for Los Angeles, intent on rekindling this imaginary old flame.
Unfortunately her vehicle of choice, a 1997 Buick LeSabre, is the very one in which Del stashed his stolen drugs. Equally unfortunately, the guys who offed him (Morgan Freeman's pensive Charlie and his kick-ass protege, Chris Rock's Wesley) are in hot pursuit, intent on recovering the goods and silencing the only witness to their crime.
You could say that Nurse Betty is a road picture. You could also call it a meditation on how the media scramble easily impressionable brains. Or a study in obsession, since Charlie, working his last job before retirement, conceives a passion for Betty that fully matches hers for David--and is another product of a simmering imagination.
But none of those descriptions quite covers the case. To begin with, John C. Richards and James Flamberg have actually written a screenplay instead of merely structuring one, which is what most American screenwriters do these days. It is full of quirky yet weirdly believable turns--and wacky, revealing dialogue. "I'm glad they got those casinos," says the parodistically psycho Rock as he reflects on the injustices endured by Native Americans. "I haven't felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York," says Kinnear--all actor, all self-absorption--when he finally acknowledges his attraction to Betty. Their feelings may be stunted, but in their way they are pure, even heartfelt.
And the director, Neil LaBute, is attentive to them, in a way that he was not when he was directing his own screenplays--In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors--which were so claustrophobic, so tense with the desire to hurt and shock. Here he makes time for minor characters--barkeeps, small-town newsmen, cops--whose dreamy oddness he catches in a few sly, nonjudgmental glances.
Put that another way: his work is relaxed without being slack, affectionate without going sentimental. Above all, he leaves his actors room to breathe, to live, as it were, between the script's lines. Zellweger blooms in this context. Her naivete is radical, of course, but that imparts a fierce serenity to her quest. Mostly, the people she encounters on the road and in Los Angeles quickly come to understand that she is off her rocker--except the soap-opera folk, who think she's an actress going to any lengths for a job--but there is such sweetness in her determination, such an endearing faith in the destiny she alone perceives, that they help her along. Zellweger is lovely in the role.