" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Aaron Eckhart opens Nurse Betty with a bang. You might have seen him in Erin Brockovich as Erin’s blue-collar boyfriend, or as the woman-hating yuppie in In the Company of Men.

Combine the ugliest elements of those two characters and you get Dale, a Kansas used car salesman with a mullet hairdo, tinted steel-framed classes, and gray polyester pants a size too small. Dale is the kind of guy who forgets his wife’s birthday, even after eating some of her birthday cake.

Yes, Nurse Betty is a comedy. Granted, much of the humor is dark and bleak, like Dale’s insensitivity or his wife’s dissociative schizophrenia, but it sure is funny.

Waitress Betty

The dashing Dr. David

“Nurse” Betty (Renee Zellweger) is actually a waitress who fills her mornings with the hospital soap opera “A Reason to Love.” She thinks George (Greg Kinnear), who plays Dr. David Ravell, is a hunk, and for her birthday her friends at work get her a life-size cutout of the heartthrob heart surgeon in his scrubs.

Betty’s everyday life is destroyed when she witnesses an inept thug mutilating her husband. The shock is too much and her mind snaps. She becomes Nurse Betty, Dr. Ravell’s long-lost lover. She sets off on a road trip to L.A. where Dr. Ravell is surely waiting for her.

Mercenary Thugs

Meanwhile, the two mercenary thugs (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) who killed Dale try to cover their tracks. They learn that Dale’s wife witnessed the crime, and they head west, following her vague trail.

Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock make a great team. The two argue as if they were father and son, the elder trying to instill wisdom and patience, the younger bored and frustrated with the constant lectures about the right way to kill and intimidate.

One of the Best Comedies

Renee Zellweger plays Betty as perky, but with an inner sadness. When she becomes Nurse Betty, the inner self disappears, leaving just the perky glaze. That’s enough for George, though, who doesn’t mind having a pretty young woman stroking his ego, even if she is a psychotic stalker who calls him David.

Nurse Betty is funny, one of the best comedies this year, but it is not for all tastes. It’s a black comedy whose funniest jokes range from mere insensitivity to well-timed spurts of blood. My hip sister loved the movie, but I think my parents would be turned off.

Like Dr. Strangelove, Nurse Betty could have been made as a tense thriller: (“Two professional killers. A woman with amnesia. Her only hope is a an actor about to get a taste of reality.”) But instead, the plot’s tension is parlayed into comedic currency by ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Somewhere between tension and release lies the heart of laughter, and director Neil (“In the Company of Men”) LaBute knows just where that spot is.