Renee Zellweger in Nurse BettyNURSE BETTY

It's one of the iconic movie moments of the '90s: Renee Zellweger, as Dorothy Boyd, responding to husband Jerry Maguire's declaration of love with a throaty "You had me at hello." It was at that point that audiences everywhere lost it, not just because of the perfection of the line itself, but because Zellweger delivered it with such vulnerability and delicacy that it was emotionally overwhelming; you not only wanted to reach out to her, you wanted to hug her and not let go.

The greatest aspect of her latest film, Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, is that every single moment in Zellweger's performance is like that climactic bit in Jerry Maguire. She's been terrific several times since that 1996 film, particularly in The Whole Wide World and One True Thing, but this is the most beautifully crafted, exhilarating work of her career so far. You can practically feel the goodwill audiences have toward her, and the movie needs it greatly, because there's a lot in Nurse Betty that will turn audiences off. It's a good movie but one with more ideas than it can handle; Zellweger's performance is the one element that keeps it humming throughout.

Zellweger plays the title character, who isn't actually a nurse at all, but rather a waitress in a Kansas diner who longs to one day be a nurse. Her daily routine consists of pouring coffee, handling the idle abuse of her loutish husband (Aaron Eckhart), and, for an hour a day, escaping into the perfect-fantasy world of her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love. One night, while watching the show on tape, Betty accidentally witnesses her husband's vicious murder (at the hands of Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), and the shock of it sets off a bizarre form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome: She convinces herself that she's in the world of her soap opera and sets off cross-country to see her "ex-fiancée," the charming, fictional Dr. David Ravell. (Greg Kinnear plays the actor who plays Ravell on TV.)

Director LaBute, known for his bitter, intentionally mysoginist comedies In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, would seem an odd choice for helming this project (the script is by John C. Richards and James Flamberg), because his lead character is a sweetheart who isn't mocked for her daffy adorability. But, with the considerable aid of Zellweger, he's shaped the material quite well, letting us get to know and love Betty before her bout of amnesia ever occurs. LaBute gives us enough close-ups of Betty - watching her soap, dealing with her husband, reaching out to her friend (a nicely understated Kathleen Wilhoite) - to make us understand that she's not a ditz, but rather a sweet, practical woman who escapes into fantasy to keep the horrors of the world, and her life, at bay. You really want Betty to find happiness, and as her trek to California becomes more and more bizarre, your hope for everything to turn out right becomes stronger and stronger.

And that trek does indeed become increasingly bizarre, which isn't necessarily a plus. You can accept Betty's memory loss and even her need to reunite with a fictional character on a soap opera, but when Nurse Betty itself becomes a soap opera, the movie starts to falter. I can't even begin to describe the convolutions that get Betty a job as an actual nurse, let alone get her an audience with her dream doctor and his TV producers; the screenwriters' intent is clear - real-life events ironically keep Betty rooted in her fantasy - but the execution seems a little off. This is due, in part, to a simple case of Too Much-ness, but it's also because this setup requires the other people in Betty's life to seem as loopy as she is. Greg Kinnear does some wonderfully smarmy work as a generic TV stud, but his reactions to Betty are all wrong - he thinks she's an actress doing an extended improv with him - and feel like a cheap sitcom gimmick. And his decision to give Betty an acting job is equally unbelievable (although recent Emmy winner Allison Janney performs miracles as Kinnear's head producer).

Beyond this, Nurse Betty keeps cutting back to the plight of the killers, who are now hunting for Betty herself and whose road trip stops the movie in its tracks most every time. They're of the post-Tarantino school of philosophical hit men, and while their story is no more believable than most of the events in Betty's life, it's to the credit of Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock that they manage to be entertaining even while their subplot goes nowhere. Rock gets some big laughs with his exasperated anger, and Freeman is such a magnificent performer, playing a role so against type, that it almost doesn't matter than the character makes absolutely no sense.

Actually, Freeman and Rock are emblematic of Nurse Betty as a whole, because even when the movie isn't quite working, there'll be something thrilling in it that keeps you riveted. I'm thinking about Betty's conversation with a resigned bartender (the fabulous Harriet Sansom Harris), or Freeman's vision of perfection atop the Grand Canyon, or Betty's eventual emotional meltdown; LaBute stages numerous scenes with verve and style, and the cast is at peak form - the movie even finds room for the demented weirdness of Crispin Glover, playing it relatively normal as a reporter. Best of all, the movie has Renee Zellweger. Those who haven't yet been in thrall to her talent will be amazed by the range and power of her work here; those who have, like yours truly, will have their beliefs confirmed - Zellweger is on the road to becoming a tremendous actress. Nurse Betty might not be the masterpiece some are claiming it to be, but it's certainly worth seeing; Zellweger's performance makes it worth seeing more than once.

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