ESCAPISM DEPENDS on having something to escape. The fantasies and affluence peddled to us by the media don't work if you're already in that tax bracket, if your life is already that exciting, if you're already that beautiful. So it's easy to understand why Kansas waitress and housewife Betty (Ren饠Zellweger) is besotted with her favorite hospital-themed soap opera, A Reason to Love. In her own unhappy existence, she's married to a lout (Aaron Eckhart, thoroughly enjoying his stupid mullet-wearing character). It's less easy to understand why Neil LaBute has chosen her comic tale of appearance/reality dissociation for his third film, the first he hasn't written. After the acclaim for his considerably more acerbic In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, what's he escaping?
directed by Neil LaBute with Ren饠Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, and Greg Kinnear opens September 8 at Meridian 16 and Neptune
Certainly Betty is a change of pace for LaBute, and for Morgan Freeman, who plays one of two hit men tailing the fugitive housewife after her trauma-induced flight to California. Mellow, romantic Charlie is "in the twilight of my career," he says, unhappily partnered with an ornery young cynic (Chris Rock), the bad killer to his good killer. Meanwhile, Betty's in a trance, believing she's now living in her soap opera dream world and engaged to marry its handsome surgeon star (Greg Kinnear).
Thus, real life is in pursuit of delusional fantasy, yet harnessed together in a creaky screwball comedy structure. Betty is also a road picture—echoing Thelma and Louise—and a movie-about-movies that managed to win a Cannes prize for its script despite its frequent lapses into sitcom-level writing. It's an uneven, amusing, yet ultimately unsuccessful hybrid that mixes whimsy, violence, and are-you-putting-us-on laughter. Part of the fascination of watching, however, comes from that tension between entertainment and disillusionment, which probably reflects LaBute's own intentions.
"DON'T YOU KNOW you represent something?" Charlie asks Betty. But what? In her naive belief in a happy destiny, she's an American everywoman, clueless, sunny, and optimistic. She's in love with the fake image of her TV doctor, a relationship paralleled by Charlie's growing infatuation with her photo (ࠬa Preminger's Laura). Only she's real—or is she? In a spell that's doomed to be broken (after we've enjoyed our condescending chuckles), she's a hapless heroine recalling that of In the Company of Men, a victim of her simple longing for happiness.
Ultimately, LaBute doesn't know any better what to make of Betty than the Hollywood producers she encounters at the end of the rainbow. Should they mock her as a rube or accept her weird devotion to their program? The West Wing's Allison Janney is the standout in this group, curiously inquiring of Betty, "Method actress?" Meanwhile, Kinnear again shows his deftness with the comedy of mutual incomprehension.
Even as it heads to a pat, unsatisfactory ending, Betty strikes a chord not unlike Pennies from Heaven. In that 1978 Dennis Potter BBC miniseries (and subsequent 1981 remake with Steve Martin), pop music allows fleeting transcendence from hardship—and a way to master adversity, to contain life's cruelty in the ephemeral joy of a show tune. Betty's precious soap opera acts in the same way; its enchantment shields her and allows her a way of (mis)interpreting the world. Like Potter, LaBute grants such fluffy entertainment respect (if not affection), while lacking the ability to turn something merely pleasant into something profound.