Bruce Birmelin
EW Staff
November 14, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Nurse Betty

Current Status
In Season
110 minutes
Wide Release Date
Greg Kinnear, Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Allison Janney, Chris Rock
Neil LaBute
Gramercy Pictures
USA Films
John C. Richards
Drama, Mystery and Thriller, Comedy

We gave it an A

Like ”The Wizard of Oz”’s heroine, ditsy waitress Betty (Zellweger) hails from Kansas, favors blue and white checked dresses, and displays a sunny amiability in the face of a bizarre odyssey. But this modern day Dorothy isn’t fleeing a wicked witch. She’s on the lam from two hitmen (Freeman and Rock), whom she inadvertently spies fulfilling a contract. As the gunslingers tail her to L.A., they begin to see that their quarry has entered a unique state of dementia: She lives inside the melodramatic, make believe world of her favorite hospital soap. Once in Tinseltown, she winds up landing an acting role opposite her beloved stud doctor heartthrob (Kinnear) — at which point the lines between reality and fiction really start to blur.

If all this sounds like jovial farce on paper, it takes plenty of dark turns in the hands of LaBute (who wrote and directed ”In the Company of Men” and ”Your Friends & Neighbors”). According to Rock, that’s because the director did quite a bit of uncredited rewriting. ”He really honed it right,” says the comedian. ”I would try out things in rehearsal. Next day I look, Neil’s got it in the script. I realized, oh, okay, he’s listening.”

Fortunately for LaBute, his financial overseers weren’t nearly so attuned. The picture was originally financed by PolyGram, but during production, the studio broke up, and Universal, partnering with USA Films, wound up in charge. ”We flew in under the radar,” says LaBute. ”We were done by the time Universal looked up and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this ”Nurse Betty” thing?”’ GOOD SIGN Some say this is Zellweger’s best performance yet, and a screenplay award at Cannes can’t hurt at Oscar campaign time. THEN AGAIN LaBute’s first two movies made more noise in the press than at the box office.

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