Did you know that the type character that Bridget Jones stands for -- poignant, yet funny, appealing, warm, idealistic yet thoroughly attuned to this world -- as played by Renee Zellweger made her first entrance as the half-crazed heroine in Nurse Betty (director Neil LaBute, screenplay John C. Richards, producer Gail Mutrix)?. It was Zellweger's acting in this sleeper-turned-success that led to her getting the Bridget Jones part, even though she was from Texas, had to change her accent, and learn much about British ways (holding one's body, what is seen as funny) and manners. A must-see for those interested in Austen films.
More importantly, this clever funny movie is a kind of black comedy that exposes of the norms that make life very hard for working class women in the US and sympathetic display of why such a woman might turn to ridiculous soap operas as an delusion they fervently believe in and take solace from. The Bridget Jones movies are similarly both chick-lit and critical of it. It's proto-feminist. It also exposes the racism of US society and how that misshapes people. Morgan Freeman in his role presents on behalf of black Americans what Renee Zellweger presents on behalf of women.
In watching and listening to the directors' commentary voice-over to Bridget Jones' Diary (Sharon MacGuire, apparently a long-time close friend of Helen Fielding) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Beeban Kidron) I noticed both cited Nurse Betty as the previous movie that showed Renee Zellweger was perfect for the role of Bridget. So I rented it for the connection to the Austen movies and found myself watching Bridget, working class, American style. And now submit this review-report.
Our heroine's birthday present: a cardboard version of her soap opera doctor idol, David Ravell (Renee Zellweger as Betty)
Charlie (Morgan Freeman) growing (comically) indignant with Wesley's (Chris Rock) insubordination
Nurse Betty the story of Betty Sizemore (Renee), a young woman who flees Kansas - the Dorothy allusion is explicit -- to enact a dream of meeting a soap opera idol-doctor who she appears to have convinced herself is real. The movie opens with this soap, and we think we are watching the movie itself for a couple of minutes:
Greg Kinnear as Dr David Ravell
The camera switches and we realize we were watching a soap from the standpoint of a dining car waitress who can scarcely tear her eyes off the TV; she pours the tea or coffee standing away from it, and doesn't spill any, suggesting she has had lots of practice watching soaps and pouring beverage to customers at the same time:
Morgan Freeman as Charlie and Chris Rock as Wesley
For Betty's birthday later that day she gets a full size cardboard version of the idol-doctor, David Ravell, rather like a Ken doll (see first still). She longs to go back to college and become a nurse herself, but Del Sizemore (Aaron Eckhart) her low life promiscuous husband who dominates her, won't let her take a car from his lot for the evening for her birthday to be with her friend; a college degree is out of the question. She nonetheless takes the car (a Buick) and goes to her friend's house. Her friend's babysitter has not shown up so the friend can't go. We next see Betty in her kitchen with her coarse husband gobbling the food she has made him. A slight quarrel on his part ensues; she soothes him but retires to her little den to watch her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love. She is soon utterly absorbed. There's a wicked femme fatale "cock-teaser" type, Chloe (naturally that's her name) who the film centers on, a kind of over-the-top parallel to Betty's husband's mistress (his receptionist at the car dealer).
The two black men at the cafe show up and Del lets them in. They seem to be closing a deal with him, but it soon turns out Del has been cheating them and they want their money back. The money is in the buick, but it's only an excuse. Whether it were outside in the lot or driven by Betty is a red herring. Del has no intention of giving the money back. For their part, the hit men want to punish him by humiliation and fear first and murder after. The scene ratchets up and Wesley (near homocidal maniac) scalps Del while Betty remains utterly oblivious in her soap opera.
The black men flee, Betty is taken away by the police who suspect her of the crime. Innocent and unaware, she is let out on bail because a reporter, friend of the caricature of a stupid cop, persuades the chief law officer to. The story is reported in the papers and the black men are seen reading that. They grow scared and determine to hunt out and kill Betty.
Meanwhile she jumps in her car to drive to LA to meet Dr David Ravell at last. She seems to think Del is still alive and must hide from him.
Charlies is the hero of the film; a philosophical ironic murderer at the end of his career he teaches sardonic lessons to Wesley. In some deleted on-the-road scenes we see just how dangerous they are: a white racist who has been cheating them is menaced, and the father leaves the son to shoot him; since the man called them names and spat in his face, the son leaves him tied with his truck on fire. He'll burn to death. The father says calmly as they drive away, he oughtn't to do that; he ought to rise above such insults. Wesley rages back: how can I? As the father, Morgan Freeman is marvelous His dialogue with the younger man is funny because it brings out black attitudes, some of which are presented comically, some chillingly. We see their justified scary racial anger.
The movie is a sort of Tom Jones chase movie. Betty in the lead (to find Dr David) with the men following as Sophia Western and Honor flee (to find Tom Jones), with her father right behind them. It's a chase down the highway of the US.
Betty turns into a Thelma and Louise manque. They are serious clowns who expose to us the racism of the whites to them, how they are often cleverer and know how to immediately get authority by claiming to be police seeking Betty. Whites respect police.
Slowly a bunch of love film motifs emerge too. Charlie falls in love with Betty as the icon of sweet feminine whiteness.
Charlie is growing older and insists on stopping at the Grand Canyon. While there Charlie dreams he is dancing with Betty, she dressed as in Seventeen. Freeman is appealing in these ironic moments, and we begin to like him, be sad for him (as we are for Betty too) at the same time as the dialogue is self reflexively ironic, showing up American realities (working class trash culture everywhere). Just about everyone we meet but the movie people are working class types eeking out a living. We can see why Charlie would want to dream his way through life. Charlie is the male counterpart to Betty. As Betty dreams of Dr David (unreal) so Charlie dreams of an unreal version of Betty.
It ends as a half-happy half-disaster fairy tale. Once in LA Betty saves someone most improbably and is given a job in a pharmacy, and gets to walk about acting out the kind concerned nurse. She has a lovely hat and outfit out of nowhere. Then she finds a Spanish woman friend who gives her a room to live in --- utterly improbable but really the film does not pretend to be anything else.
Rosa Hernandez as Tia -- the expression on Renee Zellweger's face is just like many she presents as Bridget: eager, intense, giving of herself -- and vulnerable
They go nightclubbing and also to a super-expensive ball (how they have the right to go there we are not told). At the ball Betty encounters and introduces herself to some cast and the producer of the A Reason to Love. There is her heart throb, David, the doctor, and he is charmed. He thinks she's faking to get a job and takes her to his palatial house and makes love to her. Since the soap opera has been flagging, Dr David (real name George) puts her on the set to "do her thing." And suddenly under the pressure of the TV set and cameras, Bettty goes to pieces.
Now openly George he hushes the crew who are either disturbed, want to throw her off or ready to laugh at him
But she cannot face that this is not reality but a TV show and runs back to her flat with Tia. There the black men catch up with her.
Charlie explaining the situation to Betty; he is all sorts of reluctant but may have to kill her, Wesley is all anxiety to murder do the job and leave ...
Meanwhile, the white chief of police and her reporter friend have caught up with her too, to protect her. They barge in. All have guns. Denouement: both black men are murdered by the cop (who is a fool) and friend reporter, Betty rescued.
Or is she? what now? What is feminist: is the intense sympathy we are feel for this deluded young woman. She's bette off without Del but what is there in Kansas for her? her grandparents we saw love her (of course) but have nothing. But she has become famous from the scalping of her husband, chase, shoot-out. Swiftly now George (Kinnear) shows up and offers Betty a place on the show as a celebrity. We see him persuading her in the diner in Kansas. She looks un-eager, but cut to the soap once more and now Nurse Betty is central to the show.
Zellweger presents an early or first version of Bridget who is a deeply appealing character: poignant, warm, idealistic. She ends up with the big prize she longed for. Cut to the soap's theme music. Curtain down. The weirdly fantastic ending somehow subverts its happiness
We can't feel too sorry for the black killers except that -- in more deleted scenes (several shockingly violent and showing the racism of the US) they are gunned down mercilessly and close up. We are made to feel for the old man suddenly saying "son son!" (There was most unfortunately a toning down of the film's exposure of racism.)
The music hit me with a huge whack: the film makers used precisely the songs somewhere in my psyche from a young age as (ludicrously) central to life. There were tunes from The Wizard Of Oz (of course). I can't remember them all, perhaps songs like "the moon comes over the mountain" And especially, "when I was just a little girl I asked my mother what would I be," with its refrain "che sera, sera" whatever will be will be. I still (in depressed black humor moods) sing that silently to my ears at moments. The film ends with this sung in Spanish.
It's repeatedly said that Austen authored books perfect for our post-feminist time, and in the book on Jane Austen movies that I'm working on I'm arguing the Austen movies as a group are post-feminist. This is a post-feminist movie: it's strongly informed by an implicitly feminist outlook but holds out no hope of change, reform, power, real freedom for women, only an ironic refuge for herself.