The way I see it, this is a film about two big messes. The first mess occurs when two hitmen, Charley (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock) brutally kill sleazy Kansas used car dealer and two-timing husband Del Sizemore (Aaron Eckhart) during questioning about the location of some missing drugs. Unbeknownst to any of them, Del’s long-suffering wife Betty (Renee Zellweger) is watching a tape of her favorite soap opera, “A Reason to Love”, in the den, and witnesses the final series of events.
At this point she goes into shock and melds together her real life and that of the soap opera. She then decides to leave Del to meet her imaginary ex-fiancee, Dr. David Ravell, a character played by self-important actor George McCord (played by the talented Greg Kinnear). Unbeknownst to her, the missing drugs are actually in the trunk of the car she takes to California. Charley and Wesley figure it out, though, and are in hot pursuit of Betty.
Did I say two messes? The second big mess turns out to be the film itself. The original story written by John Richards (screenplay co-written with James Flamberg) could have easily become a wacky, zany, and extremely crappy comedy directed by the likes of Garry Marshall. Instead, right from the initial murder scene, it became something much darker in the hands of director Neil LaBute. Better known for his very dark (and often called misogynistic) “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors”, LaBute allows his characters their flights of fancy but never allows them to leave a cold, harsh world with real violence and real consequences. Charley and Wesley have the most comical exchanges in the movie while Charley is wistfully anticipating the completion of his final job before retirement, but the pair are never shown as bumbling, only lethal, hardened killers. As such, the tone of the film is all over the place.
Despite cringing at many of Betty’s deluded interactions with the residents of her final destination and the director’s seeming lack of faith in the believability of many of the scenes, “Nurse Betty” still turns out to be entertaining. It probably helped to have nearly an entire cast capable of carrying the movie on their own. Aside from Freeman, Zellweger, Rock, Kinnear, and Eckhart, the always great Pruitt Taylor Vince and the too-long-missing Crispin Glover round out the cast as Betty’s Kansas friends desperately trying to find her and find out what happened to Del.
The real point to all the violence and goofiness is the central theme about dreams. Betty follows her dream of a better life to escape the horrors of her husband. Just as important and just as demented is Charley. Through the search for Betty he holds onto a picture of her and develops a fantasy image of her to escape the horrors of his own life. Events may not work out quite as either Betty or Charley plan, but the point is that they have their dreams and they chose to pursue them. Even if you fail, the chase can at least make an otherwise difficult life bearable. In his first feature that he did not write, LaBute acknowledges the nihilism rampant in his other films, and uses that to demonstrate the kind of world from which our protagonists would want to escape. In doing so, he certainly doesn’t give us consistency, but he does provide us some hope.