. "Nurse Betty"

A murder-comedy-fantasy, "Nurse Betty" is a an off-beat romp from start to finish. Carried by Renee Zellweger whose particular forte is unquestioned honesty, directness and guilelessness, supported by no less than Morgan Freeman in a semi-comedic turn and Chris Rock in a semi-serious turn, it's a rare entertainment.

Betty Sizemore (Zellweger), a Kansas waitress and TV soaps addict, is a taken-for-granted wife to Del Sizemore (Aaron Eckhart) a car dealer with very shady clientele. Since he's enjoying sexual interludes with his secretary on his business premises, he's not much for confiding secrets to his wife, let alone treating her as a partner and an equal. It's characteristic that, when Betty asks for the use of the Buick LeSabre to go out with her girlfriend in (it's her birthday), the request is denied. When Betty goes to the dealership to pick up a car, Del's secretary-lover confirms that she can't have the Buick. "A good ride, that LeSabre", says the secretary as she hands Betty the keys for a much lesser ride.

But we see that Betty has a mind of her own as she clandestinely takes the keys for the car she wants, not suspecting the real reason it's been denied her. When Charlie and son Wesley, the two bad guys (Freeman and Rock) come to her home to do their deal with hubby and he's caught lying to them, it ends in him being killed -- rather grotesquely and messily. No one realizes that Betty's plans for the evening had fallen through and she's been quietly in her room, witnessing the bloody hit on her old man. She can't handle what she's seen and the curcuitry in her brain is instantly rewired.

In a mind-protecting mechanism, reality is turned into the escapist world of her soaps as she leaves Kansas in the Buick for Hollywood la-la land in a quest for her true love, the fictional Dr. David Ravell, soap star hero (Greg Kinnear) of "A Reason to Love". And, since the father-son hit man team didn't get what they were after from old hubby, they follow, certain that she has it or knows where it is. The chase is on. And so are the unconventional developments of this off-beat mixed-genre road show.

Director Neil LaBute ("Your Friends & Neighbors", "In the Company of Men") and his writers, John C. Richards and James Flamberg, mostly pull off the difficult job of shifting seriousness to comedy and back again. Once into it, you know there's another wacky development on this journey that will have just enough improbable plausibility to tickle you, like when the production staff and star of "A Reason to Love" start by regarding Betty as just another groupie kook and end up trying her out for the series.

Though the concept behind the father-son hit man team is comedically inspired and rich in off-beat invention, it sometimes falls flat and not fully realized. But, it does win out on an overall basis. Morgan Freeman somehow finds or creates his moments as he develops a crush on his quarry and, later, gun in hand, expresses his life and dreams to her like an abject suitor. Has this actor ever had a role that wasn't emotionally juicy and creatively astute?

Tia Texada deftly portrays Rosa, Betty's hard-bitten, temporary roommate in a role that's typically Rosie Perez territory. And the Arizona bartender's brief role is worthy of special merit for that moment when she realizes the depth of Betty's problem. It's a moment comparable to Brenda Blethyn's in "Secrets and Lies" when she realizes Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is really her daughter. Meanwhile, Allison Janney, who plays the press secretary on the NBC series, "West Wing", is mapping out her own unique character territory in this little fantasy, one that she'll soon have a market on. I predict she won't have a day off for years.

See "Nurse Betty" if you like comedies that, mostly, work.

Estimated cost: $24,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $25,000,000.

Rated W, for Wacky film of the year.

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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