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"Nurse Betty" operates on cheerfully disturbing lunacy.

Fractured Fairy Tale

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Just when you despaired of ever again encountering adult fare at the neighborhood megaplex, here comes "Nurse Betty." Loopy, original and not without a moment or two of audience discomfort, this fractured fairy tale about a little gal from Kansas heading out on a fantastic journey offers more mature viewers plenty to ponder. "Nurse Betty" bounces along on a fragile bubble of dark humor. There are plenty of laughs, but director Neil LaBute and screenwriters John C. Richards and James Flamberg exact a little bit of your soul as well.

At first, "Nurse Betty" feels like an odd marriage of two distinctly different movies. Is it a dark comedy about a bickering pair of Tarantino-esque hit men on the trail of a witness who had the misfortune to catch them plying their trade? Or is it a screwball romance about a naive, small-town waitress with amnesia who heads off to California convinced she's in love with her favorite TV soap opera doctor?

Just when you're sure "Nurse Betty" suffers from an incurable case of multiple personality disorder, the two internal movies begin to mesh.

While certainly not seamless, what LaBute and company accomplish here is an ambitious coupling of light-hearted froth with a darker drama. "Nurse Betty" is a cinematic paradox, mixing tenderness with viciousness, absurdity with reality. On one level, it's a hip, fractured parody of "The Wizard of Oz," where the yellow brick road leads to the schizophrenic gates of the Hollywood Dream Factory. Renée Zellweger stars as the titular Betty, a sweet-natured waitress trapped in marriage to the town's philandering, sleazeball car dealer (Aaron Eckhart). Her one escape is the daytime drama "A Reason to Love." When first we meet Betty, she's well on her way to mixing fantasy with reality. She fills her empty days dreaming about the soap's sympathetic surgeon David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). An important point of clarification: Betty isn't fantasizing about the actor who plays the surgeon. No, she's falling deeply in love with his character.

Reality takes a backseat for Betty after she stumbles across two big-city hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) doing their bloody job on her hubby. Traumatized by what she witnesses, Betty blocks it all out.

Instead, she aims her car west and sets out to reunite with her true love, the fictional Dr. Ravell.

The two hit men follow, seeking to silence Betty and to retrieve their boss' property which happens to be in the trunk of Betty's car. While they search and bicker, palaver and argue, Betty not only lands a job at a real hospital but finds her way into a charity event attended by the actor who plays Dr. Ravell. Immediately assuming Betty must be some kind of diehard method actress, Kinnear's character mistakes insanity for style.

Zellweger seems Oscar-bound for a role other actresses might have played as shallow. All pink and perky, Zellweger's fresh-scrubbed appeal makes Betty's innocence compelling. And when her Betty realizes just how delusional she's been, Zellweger gives one of the year's most heartbreaking performances.

Freeman and Rock, as well as Kinnear, create similarly credible and entertaining characters. As always, Freeman brings a touch of dignity to his role, a man who believes there's an art to killing. As his younger, moral opposite, Rock gets to show more depth and anger in a performance that requires more than an outrageous mouth. In his double role, Kinnear is completely believable as the ridiculously noble surgeon Dr. Ravell as well as the insecure, shallow actor who portrays him.

Compared to the monstrously manipulative characters in films written and directed by Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors"), "Nurse Betty" is a light-hearted romp. But like the innate artificiality of Hollywood that LaBute and company are skewering, "Nurse Betty" is anything but.

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