Soap a Dope

Nurse Betty gives the screwball comedy a Tarantino edge. The classic rock of This Is Spinal Tap still rules!  

Renée Zellweger embodies the ordinary at its most precious. Consider that rumpled face and patchy skin, those squinched-up eyes: She elicits, every moment, the sort of affection you feel for a bleary loved one padding off to the lavatory in the middle of the night. As a Kansas waitress in Nurse Betty, she witnesses the gruesome murder of her boorish used-car-dealer husband (Aaron Eckhart) and snaps into a “dissociative” state: She thinks she’s a nurse in a soap opera called A Reason to Love and takes off for Los Angeles to join the show’s heart-surgeon heartthrob (Greg Kinnear)—oblivious to the killers (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), who assume she’s a criminal mastermind and not a nut-bird. This is a rather movieish scenario, but Zellweger never seems too dear. Early on, she has tiny ways of undermining her husband’s authority that suggest, beneath her robotic obedience, a streak of insolent self-sufficiency. And her romantic delusions make her firm, not mushy. When, transformed into “Nurse Betty,” she performs an emergency tracheotomy, she emerges covered in blood with eyes shining, as if game to cut a hundred more throats.

Nurse Betty, directed by Neil LaBute, is a feminist sitcom tricked up with garish violence and garrulous hit men: It’s like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) or Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) rewritten by Quentin Tarantino. The movie is ham-fisted, plodding, totally synthetic—a lead balloon that should never get airborne. But Zellweger has her own motor, and her own ether, too—a way of drifting unperturbed through a plot that would expose a more self-consciously dithery performer.

LaBute didn’t write the screenplay (it’s by John C. Richards and James Flamberg), which is why the heroine has half a chance to escape unhumiliated. His own work—the films In theCompany of Men (1997) and Your Friends &Neighbors (1998); the collection of one-acts, Bash: Latterday Plays (recently on Showtime)—are airless theater games in the style of David Mamet: mathematical proofs that men are either duplicitous swine or oblivious cuckolds. Self-hate trumps misogyny, but only barely: LaBute has a gift for dressing up his loathing of sex in neat feminist packages.

Nurse Betty moves along the same dim trajectory: Eckhart, a cock in LaBute’s first film and a capon in his second, is back to being a cock, only a greasily bourgeois one, and Kinnear as the soap-opera stud is predictably callow and self-absorbed. But Betty’s impregnable delusion leavens the cynical hopelessness, and the script has a surge of inspiration at the moment it seems on the verge of crash landing. When Betty comes face to face with Kinnear’s soap Romeo, George (a k a “Dr. David Ravell”), the actor thinks she’s auditioning for the role of his long-lost love and that she’s the most brilliant improviser he has ever met. So he enters her fantasy, and in his mounting excitement convinces the show’s head writer (Allison Janney) that Betty is a find—that she should be turned loose on the set to inspire his fellow actors.

Casting Kinnear as a blow-dried soap star isn’t exactly an imaginative stroke, and it helps keep the picture small: If we’d sensed that George was an actor with real power who’d been narcotized by years on A Reason to Love, Nurse Betty might have leapt to the next level—to where George and Betty’s improvisations answered some emotional longing in each of them. That said, Kinnear is agreeably puppyish, and the great Janney (who towers over him) is at once sympathetic and guarded. It’s her groundedness that makes those outlandish scenes just plausible. She has been in the Reason to Love business too long to think of real reasons to love, but Betty’s lack of irony confounds Janney. She wants to believe, and when she does—for, say, 10 or 15 minutes—this thin little film fills out and becomes enchanting.

The air goes out of it, though, as it must. In our Tarantino era, mistaken-identity farce and pulp sadism are supposed to marry happily, but LaBute isn’t supple enough to perform the blood wedding. (I’m all for blurring genre lines, but it’s hard to return to a screwball-amnesiac scenario when you’ve watched someone scalped in medium close-up.) The melodrama arrives with a clunk. As the pro on the verge of retirement (that hoary cliché), Freeman brings his customary sleek self-containment, and he’s always a treat to watch. When he tortures people for information, his businesslike aplomb manages to be reassuring and chilling at the same instant: You’re relieved he doesn’t want to prolong the suffering, but suspect that when he gets what he’s after there won’t be any loose ends.

But when his character develops a dream rapport with Betty—his intended final victim—the actor looks fatuous. Are his mystical visions meant to echo Betty’s, to suggest he has been transformed by her luminous inner purity? Or are we meant to view him ironically, as a bigger sap, ultimately, than she is? Nurse Betty wants it both ways. It ridicules people who are transfixed by soap operas, but it’s too corrupt to acknowledge that the fantasy it’s peddling—a blend of easy feminism and smug satire and gore—is even more suspect.

The 1984 mockumentary rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is being re-released to theaters this week as a promotion for the coming DVD, which features deleted scenes along with commentary by the actors as members of the band—finally giving voice to their disgust with the “hatchet job” of filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner). I haven’t viewed all the “new” old material, but the 15 minutes made available by MGM doesn’t add a lot to what’s already there. Still, I was thrilled to watch the picture through again. It holds up, but not, surprisingly, because it skewers the pretensions of rock stars so hilariously. No, This Is Spinal Tap endures because it makes those pretensions more seductive than real rock stars do.

When we watch these wonderful comedians—Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer—we can taste how much they love embodying their roles. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to be a rock titan, even a ludicrous and stupid and fading one? It’s the supreme pipe dream of our era. Way down deep, Guest and McKean probably wish they could have stayed Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins for all time. McKean was at the peak of his gorgeousness. His features never seemed as classical as they did under that straggly blond wig; those longing looks of Guest—all petulant lips and wounded eyes—are justified. (When, as David’s girlfriend, June Chadwick venomously slits her eyes back at him, the love triangle is as evocative as any on film.) It’s too bad that the brilliant Shearer, who has a Ringo-like dolefulness, didn’t bother with an English accent, which would have aced the portrait. But I was surprised by how fully lived-in the other portraits are—especially Tony Hendra’s manager, who really seems be to plumbing his reservoir of patience to keep these spoiled children in line. It’s no wonder young musicians say they learned to be rock stars from This Is Spinal Tap. It came to satirize and stayed—and stays on—to celebrate.