Nurse Betty

USA 1999

Reviewed by Phillip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Fair Oaks, Kansas. Waitress Betty Sizemore, who dreams of becoming a nurse, is a fan of the television hospital soap A Reason to Love, whose lead character is Dr David Ravell. Unknown to her, her car-dealer husband Del is running drugs. Two hitmen, Charlie and Wesley, pay Del a visit, during which the car salesman is killed. Witnessing his murder, Betty is shocked into a fugue state; believing herself the ex-fiancée of Dr Ravell she sets out for California to find him, driving a Buick containing the drugs the hitmen are after.

While Sheriff Eldon Ballard and reporter Roy Ostrey investigate the murder, the hitmen set off after Betty, with Charlie increasingly fascinated by his quarry. In LA, Betty lucks into a hospital job by saving an accident victim, and finds lodgings with his sister Rosa. At a ball attended by the stars of A Reason to Love, Betty meets George McCord who plays Dr Ravell and starts treating him as her lost love. George, imagining she's improvising, gets her a part in the soap. Confronted by cameras, Betty is shocked out of her fugue.

The hitmen track Betty down to Rosa's house, ahead of Eldon and Roy. While Wesley holds the others at gun point, Charlie discovers Betty knew nothing of the drugs. A gun battle erupts: Wesley is killed and Charlie wounded. The police arrive. Betty, who has seized Charlie's gun, returns it so he can die with dignity. Betty lands a role in the soap.


Neil LaBute has been widely accused - not without reason - of revelling in misogyny, misanthropy and cruelty. Given this, Nurse Betty may come as a surprise. True, some fairly unpleasant things happen, but mostly to characters who deserve them: the repellent Del Sizemore gets scalped and shot dead for being not only a used-car salesman, drug-dealer and abusive husband, but for sporting a hideous mullet. It's surely no coincidence that he's played by Aaron Eckhart, who took the role of chief predator Chad in LaBute's first film In the Company of Men. LaBute has said that letting Chad get away with his loathsome behaviour in that film made it "more potent"; having Del meet his comeuppance so decisively signals that we're in a rather different kind of movie.

For although LaBute can't resist injecting the occasional acidic squirt, his latest film ends up as a fair simulacrum of a romantic comedy-thriller where the good end happily and the bad unhappily - this being, as Oscar Wilde reminded us, the definition of fiction. Which is appropriate enough, since Nurse Betty repeatedly zeroes in on the crossover point where fiction shades into fantasy, television-fed fantasy in particular. Knowingly scripted by ex-stand-up comedian John C. Richards and music editor James Flamberg, the film at once mocks and purloins the narrative conventions of daytime soap. When, in the final shoot-out, Charlie reveals that his fellow hitman Wesley is his son, it's precisely the sort of melodramatic bombshell soaps depend on; but it also makes sense dramatically, for why else would the professional Charlie put up with hot-headed Wesley?

Throughout, Nurse Betty plays this kind of juggling game. The central plot conceit of Betty's fugue - which Reneé Zellweger's waitress is shocked into when she witnesses the murder of husband Del - is a latter-day take on amnesia, that reliable old standby of soap writers; and more than once, as we're about to chortle at some especially crass line of dialogue, it's revealed to be a quote from the soap-within-the-movie, A Reason to Love. Following soapland's penchant for providing running updates for new viewers, the film's characters constantly define each other in neat encapsulations: Charlie talks of Betty as "sort of a wholesome Doris Day figure" and describes himself as "a garbage man of the human condition".

Where the film most clearly locks into LaBute's former preoccupations is that people's assumptions about each other are shown to be essentially unreliable. Betty's grasp of the supposed love of her life Dr Ravell, the character played by actor George McCord in A Reason to Love, has as much depth as the life-size cut-out of him she totes around, while George admiringly tells her "You're so real" just when she's most deeply mired in fantasy.

With more than one nod to The Wizard of Oz (Betty quits drab Kansas for West Coast Neverland, with Ravell/McCord as her phoney wizard), Nurse Betty seems to suggest that most of us end up creating our own delusional refuge from reality, and that finding it in a soap is no worse an option than most. Adopting a more fluid camera style than usual, courtesy of DP Jean Yves Escoffier (Good Will Hunting), LaBute draws nuanced performances from his cast, giving Greg Kinnear his best role yet as McCord, while Zellweger keeps a shrewd rein on the ditziness. But while Nurse Betty proves that LaBute has more than one string to his bow, you can't help thinking that he makes more memorable cinema when revelling in misanthropy.


Neil LaBute
Gail Mutrux
Steve Golin
John C. Richards
James Flamberg
Based on a story by
John C. Richards
Director of Photography
Jean Yves Escoffier
Joel Plotch
Steven Weisberg
Production Designer
Charles Breen
Rolfe Kent
Production Companies
Gramercy Pictures presents in association with Pacifica Film Distribution a Propaganda Films/ab'-strakt pictures/IMF
Executive Producers
Philip Steuer
Stephen Pevner
Moritz Borman
Chris Sievernich
Associate Producers
W. Mark McNair
Albert Shapiro
Production Co-ordinator
Karen Ruth Getchell
Rome Unit
Production Services
Panorama Films
Marco Valerio Pugini
Ute Leonhardt
Production Manager
Rome Unit:
Fabio Massimo Dell'Orco
Unit Production Manager
Tim Clawson
Location Managers
John Panzarella
Rome Unit:
Enrico Latella
Post-production Supervisor
Steven Kaminsky
2nd Unit Director
Philip Steuer
Assistant Directors
Albert Shapiro
Susan J. Hellmann
Philip L. Hardage
Rome Unit:
Enrico Mastracchi Manes
Script Supervisor
Alexa Alden
Heidi Levitt
Monika Mikkelsen
ADR Voice:
Barbara Harris
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Dean Lyras
Camera Operator
Michael Chavez
Special Effects Co-ordinator
Larz Anderson
Video/Computer Graphics Supervisor
Elizabeth Radley
Graphic Artist
Melissa Mollo
Associate Editor
Joseph C. Bond IV
Art Director
Gary Diamond
Set Designers
Henry Alberti
Stan Tropp
Set Decorator
Jeffrey Kushon
Costume Designer
Lynette Meyer
Costume Supervisor
Shari D. Gray
Key Make-up Artist
Desne Holland
Special Effects Make-up
Cannom Creations, Inc.
Key Hairstylist
André Blaise
Main Title Sequence Design
Imaginary Forces
Film/Digital Opticals
Pacific Title/Mirage
Main/End Title Opticals
Custom Film Effects
Bill Stromberg
Tony Blondal
Additional Orchestration
Kerry Wikstrom
Music Supervisor
Frankie Pine
Music Editor
Nick South
Additional Music Editing
James Flamberg
Tod Holcomb
Tim Boyle
"Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que séra, séra)" (1) - Pink Martini, (2) - Jula
De Palma; "Slowly" - Ann-Margret; "I Won't Be Home No More" - Hank Williams; "Lady Shave" - Gus Gus; "Just a Touch of Love" - Slave; "Little Lovey Dovey" - Texas Joe; "Double Cross", "Skunk Walk" - Sugarman 3; "Don't You Know" - Della Reese; "Poor Little Fool" - Rick Nelson; "The Cattle Call" - Eddy Arnold; "Cold Morning" - Kitty Kat Stew; "If U Don't Want None" - Suga T; "That Lonesome Moon" - Willow Creek; "Cuando me quieres" - Frankie
Sound Design
Lance Brown
Sound Mixer
Felipe Borrero
Re-recording Mixers
Chris David
Lance Brown
Eddie Bydalek
Re-recording Engineer
Michael A. Morongell
Supervising Sound Editor
Richard E. Yawn
Sound Editors
Steve Mann
Steve Nelson
Robert Troy
Donald L. Warner Jr
Bernard Weiser
Aaron D. Weisblatt
Thor Benitez
Chris Staszak
Eric Thompson
Shawn Kennelly
Supervising Editor:
Becky Sullivan
Joan Rowe
Sean Rowe
Eric Thompson
Shawn Kennelly
Supervising Editor:
Bob Beher
Soap Opera Technical Adviser
Shelly Curtis
Stunt Co-ordinator
Charlie Brewer
Morgan Freeman
Renée Zellweger
Betty Sizemore
Chris Rock
Greg Kinnear
Doctor David Ravell/ George McCord
Aaron Eckhart
Del Sizemore
Tia Texada
Rosa Herrera
Crispin Glover
Roy Ostrey
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Sheriff Eldon Ballard
Allison Janney
Kathleen Wilhoite
Sue Ann
Elizabeth Mitchell
Susan Barnes
Harriet Sansom Harris
Sung Hi Lee
Laird MacIntosh
Dr Lonnie Walsh
Steven Gilborn
Jenny Gago
Sheila Kelley
Matthew Cowles
Wayne Tippit
George D. Wallace
Lesley Woods
Cynthia Martells
chief nurse
Alfonso Freeman
ER doctor
Kevin Rahm
friend 1
Steven Culp
friend 2
Deborah May
Gloria Wlash
Michael Murphy
studio guard
Tina Smith
Mike Kennedy
Irene Olga López
Rosa's mother
Steve Franken
Kelwin Hagen
Joshua Dotson
parking valet
Dona Hardy
woman patient
Paul Threlkeld
José Vasquez
gang member
Jack Jacobson
Elaine Corral-Kendall
Pathé Distribution
9,896 feet
109 minutes 58 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS
Colour by
2.35:1 [Super 35]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011