”Nurse Betty” and ”Almost Famous” end a Hollywood slump
All that buzz about how this has been the most mediocre summer for movies in recent memory turns out not to be media whining after all: Labor Day marked the sixth straight weekend that box office revenues were down from last year, meaning that, for the first time since 1991, Hollywood will not boast a record summer. Good! The people who churned out ”Battlefield Earth,” ”Bless the Child,” and ”Autumn in New York” deserve to have less change in their pockets.
Happily, the drought in quality is about to end. We can celebrate the arrival of two terrific mainstream movies, Neil LaBute’s dark comedy ”Nurse Betty” and Cameron Crowe’s ‘70’s rock nostalgia romance ”Almost Famous.” LaBute and Crowe are, on the surface, very different kinds of filmmakers: LaBute began his career with the grimly impressive no-budget indie ”In the Company of Men” and followed it with the misanthropic relationship roundelay ”Your Friends and Neighbors.” LaBute’s heart of darkness beats in stark counterpoint to the sunny, sweet spirited auteur of ”Say Anything” and ”Jerry Maguire.”
But the two men are united by their mastery of what’s increasingly becoming a lost art: They’re both what used to be known as actors’ directors, filmmakers with whom a wide variety of performers always seem to do their best work. Consider the one actress who’s worked with them both. Renée Zellweger burst onto the scene in 1996 in ”Jerry Maguire” and charmed audiences with a deft, assured comic romantic performance. But her subsequent career choices (”A Price Above Rubies,” ”The Bachelor,” ”Me Myself & Irene”) seemed to bring out her weaknesses – the whole squinty/ whiny/ helpless thing that inspired no less a film critic than Carmela Soprano to announce ”You know I am NOT a Renée Zellweger fan.” But Zellweger carries ”Nurse Betty” with a confident, serenely funny performance that many critics are calling her best since ”Jerry Maguire.” That’s not all: LaBute directs the great Morgan Freeman to his most complex performance since ”The Shawshank Redemption” – and coaxes subtly hilarious work out of Greg Kinnear, who is at his finest as a narcissistic soap star.
As for Cameron Crowe, who can already claim credit for Tom Cruise’s and John Cusack’s career highs, he goes four-for-four in ”Almost Famous,” with four different challenges: He coaches a complete newcomer, Patrick Fugit, to a winning performance as a teenage journalist; he draws out every bit of latent star power in the talented but often implosive Billy Crudup, who plays the film’s rock & roll hero; he makes a star out of Kate Hudson, who plays a groupie; and he directs a veteran, Frances McDormand, to her first great performance since ”Fargo.”
For a long time, Woody Allen got to wear the mantle of ”actors’ director” – he was the one filmmaker every actor wanted to work with. But Allen wastes actors at least as often as he energizes them – stars like Jodie Foster (”Shadows and Fog”), or Julia Roberts and Edward Norton (”Everyone Says I Love You”) have, in fact, done their least interesting work in his movies. It’s time the torch was passed to filmmakers like LaBute and Crowe. With another actors’ director, Steven Soderbergh, recently going from one high to another (look at ”Out of Sight,” ”The Limey,” and ”Erin Brockovich” if you want to see what he’s done for performers as varied as Jennifer Lopez, Terence Stamp, and Julia Roberts), let’s hope we’re on the verge of a renaissance. After this summer, Hollywood needs one.