Elaine Lennon muses on schizophrenia, soap opera and Renee Zellweger, the star of<I>Nurse Betty<I> and <I>Me, Myself & Irene<I>.
On paper, <I>Nurse Betty<I> must have looked extremely fun for its creators, John C. Richards and James Flamberg: a writerly intervention into the creation of meaning, via the dissociative breakdown of a Kansas waitress and her consequent identification with the goings-on in a gruesome daytime soap. Indeed, as an intellectual exercise it has some good points, but it’s sadly lacking in audience gratification and continues its mealy-mouthed Mormon director Neil LaBute’s fascination for off-off-Broadway theatrical-styled misogyny.
The intimacy of television as a medium is such that it will always have a far more subversive effect on our lives as a purgative and source of one-way empathy than cinema ever could – it’s not just in your livingroom, it’s in your face and in your head. Media Studies 101 states that as a viewer you participate in the construction of televisual meaning and pleasure: it’s the whole crux of sociocultural praxis. Thus it was that I spent much of the Seventies wishing I were Marcia in <I>The Brady Bunch<I>,Jim Rockford in <I>The Rockford Files<I>,Samantha in <I>Bewitched<I>, either <I>Mary Tyler Moore<I> or <I>Rhoda<I>, depending on what day of the week it happened to be, <I>Starsky<I>, rather more than <I>Hutch<I>, and, when it came to <I>Charlie’s Angels<I>, I simply had to be Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she then was). In other words I was shifting my identification in a slippery sort of fashion because I wasn’t a total spazz and realised that I did not in reality live in a mobile home on a beach in Malibu. The reasons for sitting glued to Eighties high-camp soaps like <I>Dallas<I>, <I>Knots Landing<I> and <I>Dynasty<I> were simpler: they were great fun and the lifestyles were terrific sources of aspiration.
Who are soap viewers anyhow? According to <I>Nurse Betty<I>, it’s ‘people with no lives watching other people’s fake lives.’ Politically speaking, it’s mainly women because of their disproportionately weak role in the family power structure in which their flexible identity constantly alters to cope with husband/children/mother in law: soap provides an outlet for exhibiting control and association that is otherwise foreign to their decentred existence. Betty (Renee Zellweger) possesses none of the competencies usually ascribed to soap fans by sworn academics, principally the decoding strategies that make sense of characters, actions, camera movements and narrative loops. Yet Betty has all of the gullibilities that are forever symbolised by those poor souls who in decades past sent their last thruppences to the poverty-stricken inhabitants of <I>Coronation Street<I>. In other words, Betty is so dumb she can’t spot the difference between TV and real life. Her soap obsession is central to her fugue (literally, an amnaesiac’s flight from reality) which takes the form of a roadtrip to L.A. (la-la land) – where she thinks she will marry her supposed fiance, Dr David Ravell, the slimy heroic medic from <I>A Reason to Love<I>. She’s chased by the father and son drug dealers (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) who murdered her no-good hubby (Aaron Eckhart) – an event to which she is mute witness and which precipitates her dissociation in the first place.
As the mulish foil to Jim Carrey’s narcissistic schizoid Charlie/Hank in <I>Me,Myself & Irene<I>, Zellweger seems uncannily real: her squinty deep-set eyes threaten to sink into the back of her high-coloured head at any minute. But she’s given a wider range of characteristics than LaBute could find, funny dialogue, better camera angles and a mean high kick to boot.
Just as only the most deluded fool could take merry prankster Lars Von Trier’s <I>The Idiots<I> to be anything other than a direct reflection of his middle class, po-faced audience, only the most deranged ostrich could be daft enough to think that this latest outing from those Rhode Island taste-arbiters, the Farrelly Brothers, is an insult to the mentally ill. In fact, it’s a good-natured kick to the groin of tastemongers everywhere, undercut by the swoony, <I>Good Will Hunting<I>-style soundtrack of Steely Dan covers, an undertow to the pastoral Ocean State setting. It even quotes Woody Allen’s self-justifying paedo-line, ‘The heart just wants what the heart wants.’ Sick? You better believe it. This isn’t the Farrellys’ best work by a long way, but with any luck it will offend everyone who’s dead from the neck up and please fans of Jerry Lewis’ classic <I>The Nutty Professor<I> no end.
The logical conclusion of making textual meaning is a productive moment of interaction, as they say. In <I>Nurse Betty<I> this occurs when Betty lands a role in the soap because George/Dr David(Greg Kinnear) takes her role-playing to be Method Acting. ‘I don’t think I’ve felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York. You’re so <I>real<I>!’ he joyously exclaims at her relentless corn-fed charm. ‘Who’s Stella?’ is Betty’s jealous idiot soaphound response. On the artificial hospital set at the TV studio his New Directorly bullying quickly forces Betty to re-connect with her former reality – and her dissociative phase lapses in a scene that is so intellectually sullied as to be verging on the truly distasteful. Betty’s inferior brain could never re-cast the text in which she finds herself implicated: she’s the original empty human subject waiting to happen. The whole point of the film turns on the difference between the words ‘association’ and ‘dissociation’. Laugh? I nearly died.
However, she is recognised by the writer (who else could drive the film’s Big Idea?) as the very centre of the cultural process known as the Production of Meaning. If nothing else, Lyla (the drily impressive Allison Janney doing a Good Witch impersonation) sees in Betty the whole purpose of soap opera – a never-ending drama – in the first place. ‘The story is beyond belief – which is perfect for us’, she barks, following the preposterous newsworthy shoot-out which concludes the main drama in true soap-opera style (remember <I>Dynasty’s<I> Moldavian massacre?). Not for these writers the pleasing conflation of reel and real life which made <I>Tootsie<I> a work of true catharsis and hilarity – just a paper-thin, generic, join-the-dots scene where each character in the film can meet every other character, despite the fact that they don’t have enough narrative linkage to bring them together in the first place. Not once is Morgan Freeman’s inexplicable obsession with Betty properly interrogated. This truly is a film of multiple independent identities.
Everything about Betty is second-hand – from her used-car salesman husband, to her life, to her dreams: the film’s concluding moments, which see her drinking coffee outside the Cafe Sistina, are in fact the re-enactment of a once-in-a-lifetime trip as recounted to Betty by an Arizona bartender she meets on her travels. LaBute’s theoretical inroad into mainstream catholic acceptability has come full circle. For this Dorothy, it would seem, there’s no place like Rome.
@Writer: Elaine Lennon
<I>Nurse Betty<I> opens 15 September.
<I>Me,Myself & Irene<I> opens 22 September.