& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

What exactly is Nurse Betty? Screwball comedy or a nasty film about nasty people doing nasty things to each other? Actually, it's a very odd mix of both, usually leaning toward the funny side.

It's a very strange move for director Neil LaBute, who's earned a reputation for making rather unsettling films, his first two being the hate-filled In the Company of Men and Your Friends & amp; Neighbors, both featuring characters no one would ever want to know in real life, both of which he wrote as well as directed.

But this time out, LaBute handled only director duties, leaving the writing to two relative newcomers, John C. Richards and James Flamberg, who incidentally took home Best Screenplay honors for the project earlier this year at Cannes.

So comedy, at least in an out-and-out farcical sense, makes its first appearance in a LaBute film, and he has no problem getting his actors to do funny things in a funny way.

Here we have Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger), a great small-town Kansas waitress -- there's no doubt she could do it blindfolded -- a really sweet person, who's addicted to a TV soap opera and has a pure cad of a husband, Del (LaBute regular cad Aaron Eckhart, who recently showed his acting chops opposite Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich).

Betty's dream was to become a nurse, but that was shattered long ago. Her ongoing pipe dream is to meet and maybe even run away with her TV show's handsome surgeon, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear, wearing his biggest smile ever). But she knows she's relegated to the cards she's been dealt in life, and continues on, if not blissful, then at least blissfully unaware of the bad stuff going on around her.

Some of it is going on right in her living room, where her car salesman husband is doing some sort of "business deal" with a couple of less-than-trustworthy fellows (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). Things go wrong for the idiotic Del, and what follows is a scene that will go down as one of the goriest of the year (some of you might not want to watch this part). Okay, so we are, after all, watching a Neil LaBute film.

To make matters worse, it is witnessed by Betty, but the killers don't see her before they leave. Her response is to flip out, not in any expected kind of way, but by suddenly -- in her own mind -- becoming Nurse Betty, a character from the TV show who left Dr. Ravell at the altar many years ago.

Completely blanking out the horrific scene she's just witnessed, she hops into one of Del's cars -- a very important one, it turns out -- and heads for the fictional Los Angeles hospital where she hopes her former fiance will welcome her with open arms. Little does she know that the classy but dangerous Charlie (Freeman) and the nutcase Wesley (Rock) have found out that their most recent in a string of crimes very well might have been witnessed.

This soon becomes a warped version of a road movie, with Betty dizzily making her way across the country and leaving indelible impressions when she tells people her plans, and the killers following not very closely behind.

It's here that the script goes off on interesting tangents. There's some slice-of-life exploration of America, there's a close-up examination of the relationship between the two hitmen, and there's a well played-out story of the folks back home in Kansas trying to make sense of what happened to Del and where Betty has gone off to.

But the centerpiece of all this awaits on the West Coast, when Betty, through a series of unbelievable (but that's all right) circumstances, does meet up with not only her TV "doctor," but also the whole cast and crew of the show. Starting with some absolutely classic bits of misunderstanding that would've made the writers of I Love Lucy proud, the film is energized by the great variety of reactions on both sides of the fantasy/reality fence. Zellweger turns in her finest performance to date with a layered presentation of a simple character in a complicated situation, and Kinnear shines in a part that features some deft turns of style.

The film does falter a bit in keeping a balance between the comedy surrounding Betty and the seriousness of what's coming after her. And the action does get quite brutal. But getting past these flaws, the film works quite well as a crowd pleaser. Those who were wary of LaBute the first couple of times might want to try him now.

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