It‘s backlash time. Again. In the last few weeks, at least two prominent film critics have weighed in against the new nastiness in moviemaking, a malignancy of the spirit that manifests either in excesses of screen brutality or in the malicious creation of characters who are evil incarnate. The other day, I heard Arthur Penn, of all people, fuming on Fresh Air about the surplus of violent films barreling over the transom these days. This may sound like rank hypocrisy coming from the man whose Bonnie and Clyde inspired more copycat shoot-’em-ups than Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction put together. But I think what Penn was getting at was the fact that many filmmakers — especially the young, the male and the Tarantinized — have no idea whether they‘re exploring humanity’s dark side or reveling in it, and couldn‘t care less either way.

Nowhere has that boundary been fuzzier than in the films of Neil LaBute. A playwright and film writer-director, LaBute couldn’t be less interested in physical violence, but he‘s an aesthete of emotional terrorism in much the same way Tarantino is of the more physical sort. He’s also a Mormon, which suggests that a notion of deity must lurk somewhere in his bleak world-view. And why not? That ardent Catholic Flannery O‘Connor made it her life’s work to examine how low human beings will stoop in the attempt to crawl out from under God‘s omniscient gaze. Beautifully written and expertly acted, LaBute’s two films to date, In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), have been elegantly turned exercises in the politics of private cruelty, but without the hunger for transcendence that informed O‘Connor’s genius. If it‘s true, as cultural provocateurs through the ages have asserted, that art’s job is to needle and negate, LaBute‘s movies have done all of that — and then sat there, grinning with complacent knowingness in their vision of humanity as a sinkhole. One came away feeling drubbed and empty all at once.

Until now. Perhaps because it’s based on a script not his own (John C. Richards and James Flamberg co-wrote from a short story by Richards, a former standup comedian), LaBute‘s new comedy is an unblushing celebration of naivete, and a warm one to boot, about a pure young woman whose innate goodness brings a wicked world around to her way of thinking. (Don’t get too comfortable: There are a scalping and two killings in Nurse Betty, and a couple of perfunctory shootouts, and some extremely poor behavior, almost all of it played for laughs.)

As Betty Sizemore, a credulous Kansas waitress and soap-opera fanatic with unfulfilled dreams of becoming a nurse, Renee Zellweger — who has carved out a singular career as an ingenue you can go with: goodhearted, simple-minded, a tigress when it comes to protecting her integrity, and the only young actress I can think of who can tell a man ”You had me at ‘Hello’“ without coming off like a total idiot — functions as a deliriously wide-eyed composite of some of history‘s finest ingenues of the sort we postmoderns feel compelled to make fun of, or burn at the stake, or relegate to the status of best friend. As the movie opens, Betty is a sleeping beauty shackled to one frog prince (her slimy, two-timing husband, Del, played by Aaron Eckhart, who has done his share of LaBute assholes, as well as Julia Roberts’ long-suffering boyfriend in Erin Brockovich) and madly in love with another (Dr. David Ravell, a physician on a daytime television soap, nicely rendered by Greg Kinnear in a dual role as both the feckless actor who plays Ravell and the character himself). So absorbed is Betty (celebrating her birthday alone) in an episode of A Reason To Love that when she hears the thumps of her spouse taking a beating from two hit men in the next room, she murmurs ”Shh“ and carries on watching until the sound of gunshots leaves her no option but to investigate — and thereby experience a trauma that spins her into a dissociative state and a new identity within her favorite soap.

Like that other Kansas girl before her, Betty slips into a dream world more vivid than anything going on in her real life, then takes off for L.A. in her husband‘s Buick LeSabre to find Dr. Ravell, with the two hit men — an amusingly testy partnership between Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock — in hot pursuit. Two road movies, and two parallel realities, ensue: While Betty polishes an elaborate prehistory with the handsome doctor (she’s made him over as an ex-fiance she wrongly jilted at the altar), the two killers-for-hire bicker over whether she‘s the ruthless bitch Rock has constructed, or the angel who appears, dressed as Dorothy, in Freeman’s wet dream. That‘s a succinct statement of the polar extremities we project onto innocence, but there’s a further mutation to come. By the time she‘s reached L.A. and made contact with Ravell, Betty has turned into Gracie Allen, humming happily along in a world of her own creation, governed by a different logic from that which operates around her. It’s just as well, for the Hollywood habitat she‘s entered is so cynical and corrupt it can’t but construe her delusions as cunning improv, designed to get her a spot in the soap. It‘s a wicked conceit (Kinnear, as the vain, reflexively charming actor who plays Ravell, and the unfailingly good Allison Janney as his producer, make a wonderfully venal pair) and a witty comment on the way the ludicrously psychologizing lingo of soap opera has penetrated everyday speech.

For all its biting Hollywood satire, Nurse Betty draws its vitality from a genuinely expansive spirit. The ensemble is casually, honorably and intelligently multicultural: As with Tia Texada, who plays the sardonic, reluctantly kindly Latina who takes Betty in and hooks her up with Ravell, the casting of Freeman and Rock has nothing to do with race and everything to do with their goofy, touching chemistry as a wise old pro trying to rein in his hotheaded young protege and carry out his last assignment in style. It would be all too easy to caricature Betty, but like Gracie’s eternal ditz, she pulls not only everyone she meets but the audience itself with her into a world defined by that most degraded of virtues — good will. When, at last, she comes to and realizes her wishes, we‘re right there with her.

Perhaps working with material written by others has imbued LaBute with a lighter heart and a more generous mood. Perhaps he’s getting a little older, and a little softer. Who knows? For all I know, this talented director may look on Nurse Betty as time out from his serious work. That would be a mistake, for this delightful and compassionate romp achieves precisely that rare quality — grace — that sets Betty apart from the pack.

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