"Nurse Betty" is strangely inert, especially when you consider that the film was directed by Neil LaBute, who made such a stingingly potent debut with "In the Company of Men."
Where his first film was a horrifying and bleakly funny indictment of the darkest Darwinian effects of corporate capitalism, "Nurse Betty" is shapeless, bland and virtually devoid of a point of view. The movie isn't helped by its lead actress, Renee Zellweger, whose emotional range and physical expressiveness are limited at best. Her character, Betty Sizemore, is a sweet, naive girl-next-door from a small town in Kansas whose only transformation in the film is to become even more sweet and naive; viewers familiar with Zellweger's persona, from "Jerry Maguire" to "Me, Myself and Irene," know that this isn't exactly a stretch.
"Nurse Betty" hews to a conventional Hollywood formula: When Betty witnesses her cad of a husband (Aaron Eckhart, from "In the Company of Men") being murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion, she goes into a fugue state, believing that she must go to California to meet the soap opera doctor (Greg Kinnear) with whom she is obsessed. Knowing that Betty witnessed the killing, the hit men who murdered her husband - played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock - follow her to L.A., where they become players in her alternate reality.
There are some good ideas floating around "Nurse Betty," which if it had been written and executed with more panache might have been a post-modern meditation on fame and television on a par with "The Truman Show." As it happens, none of its elements work. The role of Betty calls for an actress of much quirkier expressive qualities than Zellweger's corn-fed earnestness: Her apple cheeks form a mask of wholesomeness behind which no other emotion can escape. LaBute's pacing seems oddly off throughout "Nurse Betty," whose protracted chase never gains momentum and whose stakes never seem terribly high.
What's more, "Nurse Betty" is shockingly devoid of the satirical humor we've come to crave from LaBute, whose sophomore effort, "Your Friends and Neighbors," wasn't as good as "In the Company of Men" but still had some observant wit. If "Nurse Betty" proves anything, it's that LaBute is a gifted writer, but perhaps not so fluent in film direction, at least of other people's scripts ("Nurse Betty" was written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg). He's always seemed to have a knack with actors, but here he manages - inexplicably - to flatten out even such powerful actors as Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock.
There's one moment when "Nurse Betty" promises to take off: When Betty finally meets the man of her whacked-out dreams, Kinnear's character plays it as an extended improvisatory riff. "I haven't felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York," he says giddily. As he has with so many other mediocre movies, Kinnear provides the only flash of possibility in "Nurse Betty," a bit of fire that is extinguished almost as soon as it appears. He seems to be the only one on or behind the screen with a clear handle on the material, but his performance - ably supported by the great Allison Janney - is lost in a movie that is as aimless and unfocused as Betty herself.
Starring Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear
Directed by Neil LaBute
Rated R (strong violence, pervasive language and a scene of sexuality)
Running time 112 minutes
Released by USA Films
Sun score: *