Apparently, his reputation as a cinematic agent provocateur no longer fulfills the career goals of director Neil LaBute. His Nurse Betty is a move away from the sexual dysfunction explored in his "In the Company of Men" and Your Friends & Neighbors and a leap into mainstream comedy.
For the first time, LaBute has retained outside writers (John C. Richards and James Flamberg) to broaden his scope. The experiment passed its first test by winning the Best Screenplay award at this year's Cannes International Film Festival. There must be something in the water over there: Not only is their script patently atrocious, but the entire film is one of the lamest stabs at upward mobility ever perpetrated by a once-promising moviemaker.
Those who considered "In the Company of Men" a misogynist tract won't be comforted by LaBute's choice of heroine, who's as delusional and pathetic as the movie that bears her name. Betty Sizemore (René Zellweger) is not a nurse at all but a waitress at a Kansas diner. Her marriage to churlish automobile dealer Del (Aaron Eckhart) is hardly the stuff of a romance novel, but at least Betty has her favorite TV soap opera, "A Reason to Love," to satisfy her emotional yearnings.
The outside world intrudes when two hit men -- the pontificating Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and the hot-headed Wesley (Chris Rock) -- visit the couple's home to avenge a wrong Del has committed against some shady business associates. Betty watches in horror as her husband is tortured and murdered (in a gruesome sequence that's totally out of step with the film's mostly playful tone).
The traumatic experience sends Betty into dementia, blotting out her memory and placing her behind the wheel of a car bound for California. There, she's determined to be reunited with the real love of her life, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). Ravell will be hard to locate: He's a character on the hospital drama that has now become reality to its shell-shocked fan.
Charting Betty's plunge into madness is almost impossible, since Zellweger furnishes her "before" and "after" versions alike with a moony countenance and teensy-weensy voice that indicate perpetual derangement. When Charlie and Wesley set off in pursuit of their crime's only witness, Freeman has to recite thoughtful-assassin dialogue that's clumsily appropriated from "Pulp Fiction." Ever the pro, he somehow lends a degree of dignity to the proceedings, but Rock finds no such oasis in an angry-young-brother routine he's already far outgrown.
Amid this folderol lays a muddled message about the negative effect manufactured images of desire can have on mental well-being. That's no news flash, and it's also vaguely cynical for LaBute to point his finger at "low" entertainment when his own crossover vehicle is beguiled by the idea that romance can bloom between gunshots.
"Nurse Betty" doesn't have the narrative credibility of the average soap in the first place. The kind souls Betty meets on her road trip all find her lunatic quest charming, never worrying that a celebrity stalker may be in their midst. When the hallucinating, self-styled candy striper arrives in California, she lands a job at a real hospital without the benefit of a resume or references. Eventually, she enters the orbit of "A Reason to Love's" creative staff and cast, who assume that she's a method actress who's angling for a part on the program by staying in character at all times. And they're around her a lot.
These wouldn't be fatal failings were "Nurse Betty" set in a topsy-turvy universe outside the boundaries of normal behavior. But that approach requires a signpost (visual, scripted or otherwise) that we've left reality and tumbled into farce. Instead, LaBute merely crosses his fingers and hopes we go along for the ride. Don't.