Candid Reviews of Movies Just Hitting the Big Screen (September 2000)
Any kid in Filmmaking 101 knows that the easiest thing to shoot, and have it hold an audience’s attention, is a chase scene. Almost every movie ever made contains some form of a chase scene. It can be fun to pick them out in every genre of film, but debut feature director Joe Charbanic (music video director for Reeves’ band, Dogstar) dilutes any hope for captivating cinematic entertainment inThe Watcherby beating this otherwise innocent cinematic device until there is nothing left. People run, cars chase, helicopters search, and somewhere along the way a suspense movie pretends to happen. It doesn’t help matters that Keanu Reeves ( as David Allen Griffin) insists on crystallizing his worst-actor-in-Hollywood title as a serial killer about as menacing as a sleeper sofa. James Spader (sex, lies and videotape) comes off as much of a desperate actor in search of a script than as Joel Campbell, a drug addled F.B.I. agent hot on Griffin’s trail of bloody murder. Even the amount of blood from Griffin’s female victims is meager in creating any sense of dread or fear.
The Watcheris a textbook study in oversights that music video directors make in directing poorly written feature films. The most grievous disregard being the choice of script. There’s tons of weakly disguised exposition that Joel pours out as revelation to his unskilled therapist Polly (Marisa Tomei -My Cousin Vinny). The therapy session dialogue is so slanted toward Joel gabbing about his tortured life of tracking an elusive serial killer that Joel should be the one interviewing Polly. Charbanic leverages the shrink/patient relationship for much more than it’s worth. Polly has a romantic thing for her dispirited patient that she gets to expose when she visits him in the hospital. Joel tells her, "You’re hungry — let’s eat," with tubes stuck in his arm. You half expect him to hop up and throw a coat over his pajamas and take Polly out to a restaurant.
Charbanic blows his only shot at an even marginal movie due to his severely lacking visual compositions and his inability to shift the rhythm of the story. Every labored flashback feels like two giant rusty cogs turning so that the audience can get yet another glimpse of Keanu in black leather threatening to break out of his notoriously flat line readings. It’s hard to believe that Reeves has actually worked in a movie with Al Pacino (The Devil’s Advocate), a master of vocal inflection, and didn’t learn a single thing from the experience. The only real question is how many movies Keanu Reeves will be cast in before casting directors realize that not only does the emperor have no clothes, he hasn’t even got the energy to sit on a float in the parade. When Keanu does a victory jig to some metal-grunge music before squatting down with his fingers stuck against his temples like little Satanic horns, it’s so laughably bad that you want to write a letter.
Griffin sends photos of his victims-in waiting to Joel with a literal deadline so the detective can have a chance to identify the girl in the picture in time to prevent her murder and eventually capture him. As Griffin tells Joel, "they are like yin and yang, they need each other to breathe." The only thing more embarrassing than the inane postmodern dialogue is the movie’s A-B-C plotline.
Spader keeps his focus strong, but can’t help seeming like a weakened Atlas trying to keep the weight of the world on his exhausted shoulders. The weathered Marisa Tomei looks like an aging ingenue pulled out of some community theater production and given her first film role. Tomei cheats her psychiatrist role as Polly with a damaged girlish quality that begs for another, more experienced actress to come along and relieve her of the burden of acting. Tomei is doomed to be remembered as one of the least deserving actresses to ever win an Oscar from her controversial award winning performance in My Cousin Vinny in 1991. With the exception of Spader, this kind of bottom drawer movie is perhaps where Reeves and Tomei most belong.
Although Nurse Betty won the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this muddy hodgepodge of a movie won’t be winning over many audiences in its international theatrical run. Director Neil LaBute, know for the deeply black satire of his first two films —In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors— walks the dog by directing a movie he didn’t write.Nurse Betty is about a small town waitress in Kansas so traumatized by witnessing the murder of her butt head husband that she slips into a warped mental state (called "dissociative fugue") that sends her running off to Los Angeles to pursue a doctor on her favorite soap opera as if he were a real person. The movie is a huge departure from LaBute’s winningly cruel first two films. Watching Nurse Betty is akin to doing someone else’s homework; you spend the time and they get all the credit.
Nurse Betty attempts to be high-concept satire in a not-too-distant vein from LaBute’s former films, but strangles itself early on. As likable as Renee Zellweger (Me, Myself & Irene) is as Betty, her character is so thoroughly deluded that you can never buy into her as the story’s protagonist. Betty needs psychiatric help, but instead she’s being stalked cross-country by her husband’s killers, Charlie (Morgan Freeman -Se7en) and Wesley (Chris Rock -Dogma). The road movie plot device never gels with the tenor of a movie that promises greater meaning than it ever fulfills. Freeman and Rock are completely out of place after their tortuously disastrous murder of Betty’s husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart -Erin Brockovich). Chris Rock provides enough seething hatred and pointless anger to exile him from the big screen forever. He’s not funny, he’s not entertaining, and what he does in front of the camera would never be confused with acting. He may entertain audiences as a stand-up comic, but as an actor, he is talent-less, flat, and dry.
Charlie is written as Wesley’s father, although Wesley seems to have been raised by wolves rather than by Morgan Freeman’s dignified Charlie. Charlie develops an inexplicable crush on Betty from the photograph that he carries around. He is allegedly romantically charmed by Betty’s natural grace and poise. This further over-extending leap of dramatic faith derails the movie every time it comes up. Charlie’s romantic diversion pops out as one more filler plot diversion to make the movie into something worth watching. While Morgan Freeman could make a phone book seem interesting, his talents are painfully wasted in nearly every scene.
By the time Betty arrives in Los Angeles to take the town by storm, scoring a job as a nurse at a hospital in spite of her complete lack of training, it becomes clear that the underbelly of the movie has more to do with some gently subversive agenda that plays as a private joke between the script writers. Shrouded behind the ‘clever’ buried personality of Betty is some mocking commentary on the value of maintaining integrity between worker classification and human identity. The writers (John C. Richards and James Flamberg) toy with a cult-of-personality theme without ever revealing what’s at the heart of the matter. I doubt that they ever knew it themselves.
The closest the film ever comes to showing its hand is in the character of the soap opera doctor that Betty is convinced is fated to rekindle their long lost romance and tie a wedding knot. Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear –As Good As It Gets) is never allowed to function in his real skin as the human being-behind-the-actor-behind the soap opera doctor. From his first meeting with Betty at a gala event, Ravell and his show’s scriptwriter are firmly struck by the apparent talent that Betty possesses as she gushes about their former relationship based completely on information gleaned from the TV show. They take her for an incredibly skilled actress, shamelessly hawking her wares in order to get cast on the show. It’s the strongest scene in the movie and gives a glimpse behind the goal that the writers were shooting for in satirizing media generated identity. But as the story unravels, no forthcoming scenes ever crystallize the theme into an understandable value. For his next film, LaBute will hopefully realize the folly in his ways and take the necessary step in his growth as a director — writing his own script.