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Nurse Betty does a reverse Truman Show, starring one woman who can’t wake up from the soaps.

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After the first six episodes of Gilligan’s Island, aired, the TV series’ producer was contacted by the U.S. Coast Guard, who had received at least a dozen calls from concerned viewers. The viewers asked, in all seriousness, why the Coast Guard hadn’t rescued the stranded castaways. The series’ producer called it “the most extreme case of suspension of belief I ever heard of.”

Cinema ClipsThe Way of the Gun ***1/2

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) creates a delicious array of smart, resourceful characters in this uptempo modern Western. Parker (Ryan Philippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) concoct a plan to kidnap the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) for the child of an organized-crime bagman and ransom her for $15 million. The plot thickens as the antiheroes try to stay away from old-time thug Sarno (James Caan) and two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt). The script plows through a few momentary slows, while Philippe and Caan stand out in a picture filled with magnetic performances. There’s a little French New Wave, a little Tarantino, and a lot of McQuarrie in an exciting feature debut. —GB

Bait ***

Jamie Foxx and director Antoine Fuqua deliver a by-the-numbers action-comedy that aims low and hits its target. He plays an ex-con who learns a secret about some missing gold shortly before he’s released. He unwittingly has a microchip implanted in his jaw, enabling a Treasury Dept. agent (David Morse) to follow him while waiting for a crazy criminal guy to try to get the gold. Foxx, who showed his dramatic chops in Any Given Sunday, handles both the comedic and dramatic sides of a schizophrenic script with skill, and Doug Hutchison is unconventionally creepy as the villain. It won’t make you think and it won’t make you applaud, but you’ll get the easy laughs and the big explosions you paid for. —GB

Almost Famous ***

Salt Laker Patrick Fugit makes an impressive film debut as a teenager accompanying a rock band on a cross-country tour for an article in Rolling Stone. The premise of Cameron Crowe’s film may sound far-fetched, but the film succeeds thanks to a good script and solid performances from a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Billy Crudup. An interesting look at life in a mid-level rock band, the film is really about artistic integrity and the importance of family in whatever form it takes. (R) —MD

Eyes of Tammy Faye ****

No one could have invented a character as bizarre as Tammy Faye. This insightful and often hilarious documentary provides a fitting profile of the buffoonish televangelist whose trademark mascaraed eyes and constant tears made her an international laughing stock. In an appropriate bit of kitsch, the film is narrated by transvestite Ru Paul. Segments chronicling Tammy and Jim’s many travails are demarcated by scraggly hand puppets who read headings like “Things only get worse.” The documentary shows Tammy as a caricature of herself, but it also paints her as a true American original, and a sympathetic one at that. (NR) —MD

The Watcher *1/2

Against all logic and human decency, Keanu Reeves stars as the most unconvincing serial killer since Andrew Cunanan. Reeves’ off-the-charts bad performance kills any hope for this ultrageneric thriller featuring James Spader as the requisite burnt-out lawman chasing redemption in the form of Keanu, who strangles his pretty female victims and talks like the skater version of Cary Grant. From the illogical sight of Marisa Tomei as a psychologist to the bizarrely ineffective booby traps and puzzle-clues set by Keanu, this picture begs to be sent quickly to video and expunged from moviegoers’ long-suffering minds. (R) —GB

Whipped *

A romantic comedy so bad, it’s not even any fun to mock it. Lovely Amanda Peet is the object of affection for three single men, who sit around talking to each other ad nauseam about the least interesting parts of their relationships. Writer-director Peter M. Cohen has a shockingly weak command of his dialogue, which comes out in chunks of glaringly unfunny pablum. Oh, there’s also a joke about a loaded toilet and a vibrator. This attempt to marry the hip relationship talk of Swingers with some sort of bastardized female empowerment fable is an appropriately inept way to cap a learning-deficient summer at the movies. (R) —GB

Highlander: Endgame *1/2

One more attempt to wring another few million dollars out of the most unlikely of science fiction franchises. Christopher Lambert is joined by Adrian Paul, the star of the syndicated TV series, and they basically run around learning about other immortals, with no clear objective or object to be saved. The requisite action and confusing camera work are here, but there’s little humor and even less self-awareness. Lambert and Paul take their silly roles incredibly seriously, which makes the film even less fun than living forever. (R) —GB

The Five Senses ***

Canadian filmmaker Jeremey Podeswa follows five characters, who live and work in the same building, over the course of three days. Mary Louise Parker is a cake decorator rendezvousing with the handsome Italian chef she met on holiday. Her best friend is a bisexual house cleaner who claims you can “smell” love. Her eye doctor, the film’s most moving story, has learned he is going deaf. Her massage therapist has lost touch with her daughter, and the daughter has lost a little girl she was supposed to be watching in the park. The skillfully crafted film follows their interlocking stories, revealing their pain and loneliness until they eventually find love. Parker is the least appealing of the characters, who, not surprisingly, destroys her own possibilities for happiness. (R) —MD

The Art of War *1/2

Wesley Snipes’ latest vehicle does very little to distinguish itself from the rest of Snipes’ unambitious oeuvre. He’s a United Nations intelligence operative framed for the murder of a Chinese ambassador, leading to lots of martial arts capering and the shooting of many guns. Don’t go expecting art, but don’t criticize Snipes for finding a low level of stardom and staking his claim. After all, somebody has to make bad movies. (R) —GB

Bring It On ***

Peyton Reed’s clever comedy about high school cheerleading is one of the funnier teen movies to emerge from the summer sludge. Kirsten Dunst plays the head cheerleader who’s trying to lead her San Diego squad to its sixth National High School Cheerleading Championship. Things seem to fall apart when she learns that the hot routine choreographed by her predecessor was stolen from their arch rivals, the inner-city L.A. Clovers. Reed’s comedy has enough voyeuristic shots of nubile young women in underwear and short skirts to keep male audiences in high spirits if that’s all they’re after. It also does a great job of satirizing the cheerleading culture, and championing old-fashioned values of good sportsmanship and fair play. (PG-13) —MD

I thought of that anecdote from James Potter’s book, Media Literacy, as I watched Nurse Betty, the widely hailed comedic fable directed by former BYU playwright Neil LaBute. It profiles a skewed case of life imitating art imitating life. Like those sitcom viewers, Betty Sizemore, the heroine of LaBute’s film, is a fairly serious casualty of TV-induced fantasy. Betty (Renée Zellweger) is a coffee shop waitress in small-town Kansas who is completely obsessed with her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love. Her philandering husband, a used-car salesman (played to slimy perfection by LaBute’s friend and fellow BYU graduate Aaron Eckhart), sums up his wife’s addiction in a rare moment of lucidity as “people with no lives watching other people’s fake lives.”

When Betty witnesses her husband’s brutal murder by two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), she snaps. In the perfect blurring of TV fantasy and reality, she is convinced she’s Nurse Betty, a character in search of her soap opera. As the town’s sheriff investigates the murder scene, Betty cheerily chirps, “Thanks for stopping by,” and leaves in a shiny new Buick she took from her husband’s car lot. She’s heading across the country to find her true love, Dr. David Ravell, the soap opera’s handsome heart surgeon hero. “I just know there’s something special out there for me,” she says, quoting a line from the soap opera.

The film, which LaBute directs from a script by John C. Richards, is a clever comedy that seems especially original after such an abysmal stretch of summer movies. While the execution is completely original, Nurse Betty is also derivative of other films. Allusions to classic literature are thrown in as well. In some ways, Betty’s fantasy life is reminiscent of The Truman Show. Like Truman, Betty is a naive, trusting and good-hearted soul whose life is controlled by outside forces. Truman has a producer; Betty has a controlling husband. But Truman is placed in a fake world by producers, while Betty willingly retreats there of her own volition.

LaBute may put a white picket fence around her house, but her life is completely barren save for the pleasure she derives from the soaps. On her birthday, her co-workers give her a cupcake and a cardboard cut-out of Dr. David Ravel. At home, her philistine husband not only forgets her birthday, but eats her cupcake before heading out to meet with “colleagues.” Betty hates him, but she’s too nice to admit it. It’s little wonder, then, that she leaves reality on the back burner after witnessing his shocking demise.

Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock are the father-son hit men who are after what’s in the trunk of the Buick. When they realize that Betty, the only witness, has left town in the car, they take off after her. All they have to guide them is her picture on their dashboard. Soon, Freeman’s character becomes infected by the vision of Betty. By the time they reach the Grand Canyon, he’s turned her into his elusive Dulcinea. She’s his angel of purity and he becomes as obsessed with her as she is with her Dr. Ravell. His son watches impatiently from the car as his father waltzes in the moonlight with a phantom on the canyon’s rim. Like Betty, Freeman is in love with someone who doesn’t exist.

Things become even more mixed up when Betty arrives in Hollywood and meets the actor who plays her beloved Dr. Ravell. When she begins speaking to him as Nurse Betty, the actor and his producers think she’s a determined young actress auditioning for a role on the series. Admiring her ability to stay in character and her improv skills, the Dr. Ravell drags Betty onto the series’ set hoping she’ll keep improvising. But under the glare of the bright lights and cameras, the confused Betty collapses. The outraged actor holds up the metaphorical mirrors, cruelly forcing Betty to stare into the harsh face of reality. It’s a scene taken directly from Don Quixote.

Nurse Betty, which could be analyzed endlessly, is a clever commentary on the abandonment of reality, the lure of fantasy and the power of television. But it’s also highly entertaining. Though a bit slow at take-off, LaBute’s direction keeps the film and the performances finely tuned. Zellweger is irrepressibly sweet and relentlessly charming as Betty. Despite her character’s vapidness, Zellweger makes her very winning. Morgan Freeman is always exceptionally good, and his hit man makes for an intriguing character. Chris Rock, on the other hand, is expectedly edgy. His anger, always right on the surface, tends to veer over the top. Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as the egocentric actor who plays Dr. Ravell. (The way LaBute weaves in the soap opera scenes is inspired).

Like the viewers of those early episodes of Gilligan’s Island, Betty can’t distinguish reality from television make-believe. We can only wonder how long the worried viewers of Gilligan’s Island fretted over the Minnow’s crew. Chances are, they forgot all about the castaways and moved their attentions to some equally contrived sitcom. “People with no lives watching other people’s fake lives.” That’s television—one fleeting fantasy.

Nurse Betty (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Neil LaBute. Starring Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. u

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