Logline: After witnessing the murder of her deadbeat husband, a Kansas housewife has a nervous breakdown and travels to Los Angeles in order to find the “love of her life” — a fake doctor from her beloved soap opera — while being pursued by her husband’s killers.
I’ve been on a Neil LaBute kick recently, for both personal and professional reasons. In the last month, I have read or re-read four of his plays (The Distance From Here, Reasons to be Pretty, The Shape of Things, bash: latterday plays), bought two more at Powell’s (Autobahn and Filthy Talk for Troubled Times), am partway through a biography/study on my Kindle (Neil LaBute: Stage And Cinema by Christopher Bigsby), have checked out his short-story collection Seconds of Pleasure from the Seattle Public Library, bought and rewatched Your Friends & Neighbors on DVD, checked out his remake (movieIQ-infused) of Death at a Funeral, and…finally…watched his third film, Nurse Betty last week for this specific project.
Yes, I’m obsessed. He’s a major inspiration for me. But more importantly, I’ve simply been trying to understand what makes him tick, and especially why there is such a major gap in tone and theme between his theatrical work and his film work, and even more his film work that he has written versus ones he did not. If you look at this filmography, some things don’t seem to add up upon first notice. How could the man who wrote/directed In the Company of Men (two businessmen decide to reclaim their masculinity by seducing and then viciously dumping a deaf girl), Your Friends & Neighbors (six selfish, horrible human beings jump in and out of bed with each other) and The Shape of Things (where a woman uses the excuse of an art project to emotionally and physically alter a schlubby man) also be responsible for the African-American-geared remake of Death at a Funeral (which was a Chris Rock pet project), the provocative but ultimately toothless Lakeview Terrace and the pleasant but boring A.S. Byatt adaptation of Possession (adapted by him, but missing his biting wit)? This is a man who, in his greatest films and every single one of his plays, has exposed the bitterness and cruelty underneath even the most normal of people and banal of circumstances, a man whose Mormonism made zero sense to me until I read the aforementioned bio, but also makes something like Nurse Betty. What the huh?
(And yes, I’m ignoring The Wicker Man, not because I think it’s awful, which I don’t, but because it’s an adaptation that’s in this weird middle ground of his career that everybody seems to be afraid to address…including me, I guess.)
Clearly, LaBute has been on my mind like a motherfucker for this butt-end of the summer, and given free reign, I could tear this place up with a long-winded, heavily researched essay on this man. But I’m here to review Nurse Betty, and I’m glad that I was able to rewatch it, giving me a focus that I would otherwise have eschewed. Because in early August, I simply had no understanding of why LaBute would do this, and the best answer I got was a cynical (and probably true) statement from my mother as to why he sometimes pushes his incredible but harsh dramas aside for lighter fare: “People need money.” Back then, I was kind of upset that he would do such things, that it seemed like a betrayal of his own genius, but now I think I have a better understanding, which worked its way into my brain as a result of a convergence of a.) watching Nurse Betty for the first time in ten years, and b.) me finishing the second draft of an admittedly LaBute-inspired play. And having written two pieces of fiction in the last year that examine the darker aspects of humanity, I can vaguely understand wanting to take a break from gloom and sorrow and vulgarity in order to do something lighter, easier, more mainstream. It’s simply for sanity’s sake.
But we’re here because of Nurse Betty, and rewatching it last week put things into perspective better than I anticipated. Why? Because what I remembered as a pretty perky Renee Zellweger comedy with only a bit of a dark edge turned out to be something demented, mean, and very sad. (And, yet, somehow funnier.) I remembered the sudden bursts of violence (the scalping specifically), but I didn’t remember the philosophy behind the violence. I remember the big ensemble, but forgot how perfectly they came together in the end. But what I always thought was a weird choice for his first film that he didn’t also write (a movie with a budget and future Oscar-winner movie stars and bright L.A. cinematography) is now something kind of brilliant. Nurse Betty is, first and foremost, deeply fucked up. And what originally seemed to me a fairly conventional black comedy has morphed into something I find gleeful; a trick played upon mainstream audiences that lulls them with chipper movie stars and comedians and then turns the tables with a incredible amount of zest. Even though Neil didn’t write the Cannes Film Festival award-winning screenplay, it still bears his pragmatic and unflinching mark, and it’s clever as all hell without calling attention to it, which is what I missed when I was 17.
I promised myself I wouldn’t pull quotes out from all the work I’ve been reading of his — he writes some of the most revealing play prefaces I’ve ever read — but I had to take this bit from the Bigsby book (which glosses over NB too quickly, in my opinion), which encapsulates what I truly love about this movie upon rewatching it.
“[It’s] a dark comedy which plays with the very genres it deploys. This is a Hollywood film which not only satirises Hollywood and television (a conventional enough subject) and Hollywood’s products, but which proposes a version of America in which virtually all the characters prefer a dream to reality, reality being by turns banal and brutal.”
As usual, I’m glad to get such a new perspective on something I previously trivialized. That’ll show me.
- Aw…USA Films. I kind of miss you.
- Reason to Love would be better if it was All My Circuits.
- Oooooh! Elizabeth Mitchell is in this as the hot nurse with crazy hair! (Was this a part of her “sideways world” story arc on Lost?)
- Kinnear has made many sloppy choices in choosing roles, but he’s great here, and I still say Robin Williams robbed Greg Kinnear out of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
- Crispin Glover! I mean, if you cast him in anything, you know it’s not going to be quite normal.
- When people walked into a Renee Zellweger movie, did they realize that there would be a brutal scalping in the first 20 minutes? And it’s kind of played for laughs?
- Yes, the movie’s damn good. But goddamn it has a horrible poster.
- Say what you want about Zellweger, but she does a good job at playing worried.
- Whenever I look through a peephole, I always hope I’m going to see Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince on the other side.
- Charlie may be the most noble character in any Neil LaBute project. Maybe Greg in the second act of Reasons to be Pretty comes in at a close second.
- Jenny Wade apparently has an uncredited appearance. I couldn’t find her, though. Sad face.
My favorite lines from the movie.
- “I was thinking Easter because, I just fucking love pastels.” — Sheila Kelly
- “Dale, did you just say ‘injuns’?” — Charlie
- “If I had told a Ty Cobb story, would you have grabbed a baseball bat and beat him to death?! Goddamn!” — Charlie
- “Hey. I’m the law. I ain’t gotta do nuthin’.” — Sheriff Ballard
- “Beneath her?! She’s a housewife. Nothing’s beneath her!” — Wesley
- “Shut the fuck up! You’re a grip! Go…grip something.” — George
- “I saw your TV movie. It sucked! Hasselhoff blew you off the screen!” — Wesley
- “No, Elden. You shut up.” — Crispin Glover delivering it in a perfect George McFly tone