Directed by: Neil LaBute
Written by:John C. Richards, James Flamberg
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Renee Zellweger, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart, Allison Janney
Released: August 23, 2001
Grade: A+

Most filmgoers don’t associate films with their directors.  Can you name the last three films that Steven Spielberg directed?   If you don’t include the upcoming A.I., the correct answer would be Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and The Lost World.  A tough question but there are a select breed of lesser-known “cult” directors for which the question is easier to answer.  Kevin Smith is a perfect example.  He’s made just four films but I’m often asked “what’s your favourite Kevin Smith movie?”  For the record, Clerks is my favourite Smith movie but I also enjoyed Mall Rats, Chasing Amy and Dogma.  The point I’m making is that in rare instances people actually do know who made the film they’re watching.

I say this because Neil LaBute is fast becoming such a director.  He burst to acclaim when his very first film, In The Company Of Men, was named Time Magazine’s best film of 1997.  His follow up was the less successful Your Friends And Neighbours which didn’t receive a theatrical release in Australia.  Nurse Betty marks his third film but it’s the first time LaBute has directed a film he did not write himself.

Betty Sizemore (Zellweger) is a sweet young lady working at a local diner.  She happy with what life has provided her and her greatest pleasure comes from watching her precious daytime soapie.  Betty’s husband, Del (Eckhart), is sleeping around on her and instigating major drug deals but Betty’s innocence keeps her believing he really loves her.

When a drug deal goes wrong, two professional hitmen, Charlie (Freeman) and Wesley (Rock), kill Del in his home unaware that Betty has been watching in the room next door.  The shock of seeing her husband brutally murdered sends Betty into a bizarre case of shock that defies belief.  She suddenly believes she’s the ex-fiancé of Dr David Ravell (Kinnear), a television character in the soapie.  Her departure to L.A. to be with David sparks a riotous comedy.  Charlie and Wesley discover that Betty was a witness and are hunting her to finish the job.  Two local police officers know she saw the killers and they’re hunting her for evidence.  But Betty only has eyes for the fictitious David Russell (aka George McCord) who’s in for the surprise of his life when she arrives.

Nurse Betty is the most intelligently funny black comedy since Election.  The characters are all insane but the frequent twists push the story in new directions.  The freshness of the idea rubs off onto the cast who give honestly realistic performances.  Despite the craziness of the whole situation, they act as if it’s a serious drama.

Renee Zellweger is incredible and her Golden Globe winning performance is the best since, well, Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Morgan Freeman is always good but recent criticisms of Greg Kinnear and Chris Rock can be dispelled (at least for the time being) as they’ve finally found the perfect film for their limited ability.

One feels this is a screenplay that wouldn’t ordinarily have been produced had a quality director like LaBute not signed on.  The early graphic violence and complicated plot would not have grabbed the intention of studios preferring less risky ventures (e.g. Jurassic Park 3).  Dedicated to breaking new grounds, directors like LaBute, Kevin Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson are even more important than the Steven Spielbergs of today.

Nurse Betty won the best screenplay prize in Cannes last year and received a release in the United States thereafter but it’s taken a long twelve months for the film to make it to Australia.  The wait has been worth it.  Very well worth it.