"Nurse Betty" is surely the best title of the year so far, expressing as it does that rarely-reached moment in art which hovers just on the exquisite balance point between irony and platitude. "Nurse Betty" is a dark comedy, the story of Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger), small-town Kansas waitress and wife of sleazebag Del, owner of the kind of used-car lot you never want to patronize. When we meet Del he is telling his wife on the phone that no, she can't take the Buick off the lot tonight because he has clients coming, while at the same time he is banging his secretary on the office sofa.
But Betty has her own escape, and it's the soap opera "A Reason to Love." She watches it every day at work, and is madly in love with its hero the heart surgeon Dr. David Ravell, played by second-rate actor George McCord (David Kinnear). Today is her birthday, and her coworkers give her a gift of a lifesize cutout of Dr. Ravell. That night, as she watches a tape of the show, two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) show up to do away with Del for welching on a drug deal. Betty, hearing the noises, peeks into the murder room and instantly sublimates it all, fantasizing that she is actually Nurse Betty, the ex-fiancée of Dr. David, and that it's time to go to him and reclaim their love.
The film follows her progress to Los Angeles, in the Buick and unaware that there may be drugs around, and where, through a series of lucky breaks she actually meets McCord and his producer (Allison Janney in a witty few scenes). Betty is in her nurse persona, convinced that it's all real, while they think she's a brilliant Method actress trying to get on the show.
Meanwhile the two hit men are trailing her across the country, looking to kill her and take back the drugs. Freeman is Charlie, a low-key professional, introspective and philosophical ("Three in the head, you know they're dead"), with plans to retire after this last hit. Rock, as Wesley, is his trigger-happy, pathologically hot-tempered protegé. You keep wondering why they're together, and when the reason is revealed at the end you wonder why the filmmakers hadn't made more of it earlier.
The film juggles these strands, cutting back and forth as they come closer to meeting each other, held together on the one hand by Betty and her compulsion, and on the other by Charlie, who as his search goes on begins to open up to his own fantasies, including his fantasy about Betty. Freeman is such a thoughtful, understated actor that we join in his fantasy, and start hoping that it will come true. Rock is his perfect foil, the in-your-face young killer who in the context of the film is the comic relief.
Zellweger is simply delicious as Betty, not too bright but combining inherent sweetness with unbreakable determination, in this case to see and be with the man of her dreams. How and where these dreams are consummated, and what the consequences of them are, is the burden of the film.
It is also where the film goes wrong. "Nurse Betty" was directed by Neil LaBute, who normally writes and directs his own very dark films ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors"), and his direction here slows the story to a crawl, looking for darkness and overtones where speed and wit are needed. He takes this charming, inventive material too seriously, and in scene after scene gives it too much weight, as though if only he could lean on it hard enough we would believe it.
And yet there are enough brilliant moments in the script, and enough good acting throughout, to make it worth a visit. How much better it would have been, though, if only the direction had matched them.