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In Nurse Betty, directed by Neil LaBute, nothing is what it seems—Betty isn’t a nurse, and the film flaunts none of LaBute’s trademark black bitterness. Working with a screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, LaBute demonstrates that the psychological claustrophobia and unrelenting pessimism of his previous films were functions of his scripts—behind the camera, he’s a smoothly accomplished director, both less loathsome and less interesting than when in his bilious element.

The trouble with Nurse Betty is that for all LaBute’s considerable suavity with a megaphone, he can’t turn this sow’s ear of a concept into anything you’d want to put your spare change in. Richards and Flamberg posit a soft-headed idiot-savant fairy tale in which a dreamer is so thoroughly engulfed in a fantasy world that she actually brings it to life. Coffee-shop waitress Betty (Renée Zellweger) is such a cloudy naif that she doesn’t know she’s trapped in misery. Her mullet-headed loudmouth husband (Aaron Eckhart) is that stock character of masculine untrustworthiness, a used-car salesman, as well as a philanderer and possibly a criminal. Betty has been at the coffee shop so long that its rhythms and peculiarities have sunk into her bones—she moves through her routines as if in a dream, fetching doughnuts and performing no-look coffee pours to the subtle amazement of patrons like Charlie (Morgan Freeman), a thoughtful hit man in town on assignment with his excitable partner, Wesley (Chris Rock).

Deep down, Betty suspects that she wants more out of life—that’s why she fixates on the soap opera A Reason to Love and the sudsily romantic pronouncements of its hero, Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). On her birthday, Betty’s reality snaps into fantasy for good: She’s huddling contentedly in the den watching her soap on tape when her husband and the two thugs from the diner get into a murderous altercation in the front room. A witness to the ugly scene, Betty is jolted into a kind of exquisite fugue state; she leaps into the Buick her husband had just taken possession of and heads out to California to seek her destiny in the form of the hunky TV doctor. His actual existence as actor George McCord is a point that Betty’s newly fanciful but mulish brain does not accept. Unfortunately for the childlike heroine, There’s Something in the Trunk—and the hit men will stop at nothing to get it back, even if that means whacking Betty.

But along the way, the regal Charlie, full of outdated notions of propriety and integrity, comes to see Betty as an icon of daisy-fresh purity—a fantasy as demented as Betty’s own, but infused with slightly nauseating racial idealization. His admiration for Betty and unrealistic notion of its possibilities saves them both, temporarily, just as Betty’s plucky determination to sweep Dr. Ravell into her arms keeps her mental facilities cosseted until she’s ready to acknowledge the disastrous life she left behind. Even cynical Hollywood succumbs to her romantic absolutism—inhabiting this new, spunky Betty, who calls the bemused actor by his character’s name and insists that they were once engaged, the timid old Betty charms A Reason to Love’s smirking writers into thinking that she’s a particularly aggressive breed of the ambitious would-be starlet. Meanwhile, vain McCord is, for a time, content to be mistaken for his character by this awesomely attentive superfan.

LaBute’s participation in this project sheds an interesting light on his oeuvre. The darling of a hardhearted strain of critics who claim that his misanthropy reveals the secret soul of man and woman, LaBute benefits doubly by being a profile-ready character—a nice, soft-spoken guy with a family and deep religious convictions. But his work—from In the Company of Men to Your Friends and Neighbors to the creaky and insincere Bash: Latterday Plays—must stand for his participation in this culture and his interaction with his fellow man, and it’s ugly, mean, and full of contempt for the human soul. LaBute is no poster boy for Mormonism—his vaunted religious earnestness hasn’t inspired him to spread anything to the world at large but characterizations of pessimism and cruelty. With Nurse Betty, his direction affirms the script’s argument that behavior is truth and that the moral legacy we leave can be found in what we’ve done, not just in what we’ve professed to believe.

The story of a dreamer transforming reality into fantasy is an old one (most recently, Dumb & Dumber did a more credible and funnier version of it), and no amount of modernizing in the form of graphically depicted torture or mismatched-assassin backchat can freshen it—you’re either on Betty’s boat or you’re irritated with her certainty that her weird stalker’s universe is a solid place. LaBute plumps for solidity—he sets up the subsidiary characters like bowling pins and waits for Betty’s quixotic certainty to knock their disbelief down. A chain of interested parties in dusty bars and crummy motels across the country feeds Betty toward the Oz of the fictitious Loma Vista Hospital and Charlie and Wesley toward their pensive prey. The showdown is sure to be a matter of sincerity of inappropriate desire rather than gun caliber.

Richards and Flamberg’s script salts the story with cutesy details that betray the film’s core cynicism—and LaBute’s, given that he’s happy to play them up for maximum tragic-clown effect. There’s the cupcake with a single candle symbolizing the tattered gaiety of Betty’s birthday; it undergoes various tin-soldier torments, including getting ceremoniously hand-carried home by its owner, unceremoniously chomped by her oblivious husband, and rescued once again despite its touchingly smushed state. There’s a lifesize cutout of Dr. Ravell that Betty also carts around with great seriousness. Most insistent and arbitrary is the neon-bright whimsy of Betty’s blue gingham uniform, Kansas origins, and fabulous quest, which ends with the unmasking of the little man behind the curtain as a preening but penitent soul—not a doctor at all but a mere actor in the story of life. Nurse Betty is no Wizard of Oz; its “magic” is winkily acknowledged to be of the received, manufactured kind, and despite the fine performances and slick-wheeled pacing, the film never reconciles its warring strains of dim-bulb romanticism and post-Tarantino gore.

With all this talk about whether vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman is “good for the Jews,” no one seems to be wondering if he’s good for the Democrats. A minority or perceived-minority member in a prominent position can’t help but stand as something iconically representative of that group at large, so when films like Turn It Up appear, you have to wonder, Jeez, is this good for the blacks?

Now, I don’t believe in deck-stacking in anyone’s favor—make a bad movie, get a bad review, no matter how many beleaguered groups you can lay claim to. I can’t be convinced that these groups deserve crappy movies made for them any more than rich white folks do. Nor is the African-American cinema tradition yet rich, varied, or lengthy enough to counterbalance too much of this sort of cheesy, horribly written, and badly directed ghetto romanticism.

Turn It Up could be a result of a close perusal of the White Devil Handbook for Making Movies That Make Black People Look Like Idiots. Directed by Robert Adetuyi, it stars rap hero Pras as Diamond, a mush-mouthed thug with dreams of becoming a mush-mouthed rapper. He has an excitable best friend, Gage, and a pert, straight-living girlfriend; various evil white players, including a record-industry honcho named “Mr. White” and a drug-dealing Brit called “Mr. B,” conspire to keep Diamond in the rough.

Implausible, clichéd, and predictable, the story involves such outrageous examples of racism and classism as Mr. White, cornered at a nightclub, suavely requesting one of Diamond’s demos only to hear that the tape isn’t ready, and then telling Diamond and Gage to give him a call when it is. The young men retreat, furious and discouraged by what looked from my seat like a fairly generous and agreeable offer. The film takes its hero’s struggle to rise above his circumstances and shine his musical light on the world so seriously that it shows him sitting up all night scribbling lyrics in a fit of inspiration; in the studio, he reveals the fruit of his labors—a thudding, repetitive, old-school riff on misogyny and a horrific murder scenario. Diamond’s rueful father returns to teach his son the value of real music—piano samples instead of digital ones—and has Diamond rapping about blunts and cognac instead of coke and whores. The whole thing is head-clutchingly bad and should be avoided by all races at all costs. CP