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Directed by Neil LaBute Written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg Starring Renée Zellweger, Greg Kinnear, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock Classification: AA Rating: ***

Film Critic Some serious highbrows, from Plato to Pirandello, have long enjoyed toying with the notion of illusion and reality, fudging the supposedly delicate line between.

Lately, though, all of pop culture seems to have taken up the game, flaunting the pretence -- in movies like The Truman Show, in TV shenanigans like Survivor, in the whole "cyberspace" vocabulary of the Internet -- that the concrete and the illusory have somehow merged, and that plain folks are having a helluva time distinguishing the actual from the make-believe, the actor from the role. And who knows? Keep up the pretence long enough (the entertainment media are certainly playing their part), and maybe it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Nurse Betty plugs right into this delusional craze. Coming from director Neil LaBute, that's both a departure and a surprise. His two previous films -- In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors -- have revelled in the dark side of human nature, with LaBute displaying a hardheaded cynicism that bordered on the misanthropic. But here, working for the first time from someone else's screenplay, the guy has taken a happy pill. Okay, relatively happy. This is a black comedy, to be sure, yet it positively pales before the bleak shadings of his earlier flicks.

At the outset, we're back in Kansas, and the Dorothy-in-Oz premise goes something like this. A sweet-natured gal married to a sour-pussed lout, Betty (Renée Zellweger) escapes her travails by tuning in addictively to a daily soap opera, where she indulges her crush on the hunky figure of Dr. Ravell, played by actor George McCord (played by actor Greg Kinnear).

Meanwhile, after making an unwise foray into the dope-dealing biz, her boorish hubby is visited by an odd couple of hitmen (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), who dispatch him with much blood, if little efficiency. Watching this debacle, Betty is traumatized to the point of amnesia, and the soap opera becomes her alternative reality. She believes herself to be the ex-fiancée of an actual Dr. Ravell, invents a shared past for the two of them (a backstory), and heads out to track down her one true love.

As Betty enters her "fugue state," so does the picture. For example, that amnesia gimmick is itself a favourite trope of soap operas. In other words, the film's script is mimicking the behaviour of its dreamy heroine, weaving the stuff of sudsy melodrama through its "realistic" narrative line. That line takes Betty to Los Angeles, with the hitmen in hot pursuit. There, to say the least, unlikely complications ensue, until the two apparently separate worlds -- the wonky one inside Betty's noggin, and the actual one we're watching -- engage in a head-on collision.

Watch for a nifty sequence where Betty finally meets her idol at a Hollywood benefit. Naturally (or unnaturally), she thinks the doctor is the real deal and the actor a total fake. Condescendingly listening to her prattle, McCord concludes that the woman is an aspiring actor herself, staying impressively in character -- after all, this is Tinseltown. So he starts to "play off her," and compliments her skills: "I haven't felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York. You're so real." This clash of confused identities continues, sucking us into the ontological vortex, and there's dizzying fun to be had.

But is there any larger thematic point? Sort of, and it's underscored as the attendant pragmatists hurl the obvious charge at Betty: "You're in love with someone who doesn't exist." This line gets echoed (a bit clumsily) when Freeman's courtly thug begins to develop his own unlikely infatuation with Betty, citing her "wholesome Doris Day quality." So the theme emerges: In a sense, we're all in love with someone who doesn't quite exist. Romantic love is partly an illusion, at least to the extent that we idealize the loved one to conform to our needs, creating a fictional persona out of factual flesh.

Led by Zellweger's wide-eyed charm, the movie makes this point quite adroitly. The problem, and it's shared by the entire illusion/reality genre, is that the message seems awfully slight in the end. All these clever contortions start to look like so much circus juggling -- certainly skilled, often amusing, yet with scant emotional payoff.

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Nurse Betty is eminently watchable, but so was Survivor, and the guilty pleasure contains the same frustration: After a while, you just want to shout out, "Get real, people."

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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