If Blow (2001) plunders the Goodfellas (1990) side of Martin Scorsese's legacy, Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty tips its hat to a less popular but no less influential work, The King of Comedy (1983): within the same period, Walk the Talk (2000) and Everybody's Famous (2000) also took their inspiration from Scorsese's blackly comic tale of desperate fandom and instant celebrity.
Nurse Betty is another story predicated on the scary spectacle of sudden, upward social mobility coupled with stark irrationality. Betty (Renee Zellweger) is a humble café waitress, hooked on a daytime soapie featuring Dr Ravell (Greg Kinnear).
When Betty witnesses the murder of her brutish husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart), at the hands of two hoods, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), she dissociates herself right into the imaginary world of her television dreams.
As in Scorsese's film, pathetic, inner delusions soon begin having momentous effects in the real world. When Betty confronts Ravell (actually, George) with her romantic fantasies at a public function, his producers take her efforts as an in-character audition – and promptly cast her in the show as a nurse.
The movie builds to an excruciating scene of humiliation in which Betty, on set, is confronted with the precariousness of her mental state – a clear homage, once again, to the adventure of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in Scorsese's film when he turns up, uninvited, at the mansion of his television idol (Jerry Lewis).
But beyond that high point, Nurse Betty is a sprawling, contrived, dissatisfying affair. Trying to be too many things, it misjudges the transitions between various plot threads, moods and genres.
On one level, this is familiar LaBute territory. His previous films, the overrated In the Company of Men (1997) and less-noted Your Friends and Neighbours (1999), were bitter, misanthropic exercises which reduced characters to dim stereotypes in order to mock and criticise them.
Formerly, his targets were middle-class in orientation; here he moves from self-loathing to a particularly distasteful caricature of working people.
On another level, the film presents LaBute in a newly commercial, almost Disneyfied mode. In an unlikely turn, Betty's story departs from dark madness to become an everyone-must-have-a-dream fable in the vein of Pretty Woman (1990). The script by John Richards and James Flamberg grotesquely strains for a note of sentimental optimism.
Often, the movie seems as alienated as its heroine. It constantly crumbles into its parts – leaving all these talented performers to dance in their separate capsules. Even Freeman and Rock, sharing the screen throughout, look as if they are in different films, although their crazy banter is sometimes amusing.
© Adrian Martin August 2001