Nurse Betty
Produced by Gramercy Pictures and Propaganda Films
Directed by Neil LaBute
Screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg
Distributed by USA Films

Almost Famous
Produced by DreamWorks and Vinyl Films
Directed and written by Cameron Crowe
Distributed by Dreamworks

There’s a crucial difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The first is a direct, emotional response to strong provocation; the second, a self-conscious pursuit of provocation in order to revel in emotion. One is spontaneous; the other,manufactured. This distinction is a troubling one for the artist, whose business it is to fabricate occasions that elicit honest emotions. As Joseph Conrad said of writing fiction, “It’s hard labor for life.”

To different degrees, the two films under review this month settle for sentimentality rather than laboring to evoke genuine sentiment. The lapse is not fatal in either case, but it is disappointing.

Sentimentality might seem the least likely charge to level against Neil LaBute, director of Nurse Betty. His first two films seemed intent on cauterizing all vestiges of emotion from their narratives.In the Company of Men (1997) was a remarkably accomplished debut in which he stripped bare the nihilism at the heart of our culture’s liberated sexual politics. It’s a ferocious satire that wages a take-no-hostages-war on male boorishness. His second film, Your Friends and Neighbors (1999), continued the attack with a sourly mounted sexual rondelet staged to reveal that women as well as men exploit desire for self-aggrandizement. It’s a far more tendentious—and uglier—work than the first. In the light of Nurse Betty, it now seems the film in which LaBute lost the detachment necessary to artistic perspective. He reveals himself to be obsessively disgusted with sex itself, portraying it as an instrument invariably wielded in the cause of sadistic vanity and leading inescapably to abuse and betrayal. This is not clarifying satire; it’s pathological scorn.

While unrelenting contempt for the crudity and heartlessness of human nature may seem cynically tough-minded,it is in fact sentimentally one-sided. Such a position refuses to accept the human condition for what it is: a thoroughly homogenized mixture of sin and virtue. At their extremes, cynics and sentimentalists join forces in their denial of human reality.They present an either/or morality in which the individual is judged wholly damnable or wholly innocent. It’s a moral vision redolent of America’s founding folly: Puritanism.

Nurse Betty is supposed to be a comedy in which a good-hearted woman’s innocence redeems the cynics who cross her path. Although the film tries to be charming, it is willfully pretentious and weirdly sentimental. We begin with what has become a LaBute commonplace: a clueless woman in an abusive relationship with a worthless man, Betty (Renee Zellweger) is a nice person married to Del (Aaron Eckhart), a creep who manages a Buick dealership in a Kansas suburb, supplementing his income with a bit of sideline drug-dealing. Even if we weren’t shown him couch-bouncing his secretary at the office, we would know he’s despicable because he mocks Betty for being addicted to soap operas. They’re for people who don’t have lives of their own, he sneers. Ironically and quite inadvertently, he corrects this character flaw by creating a situation that literally propels Betty into her favorite soap,the ripely titled “A Reason to Love.”

It all begins when Del tries to cheat his drug-dealing associates, and they decide to scare him. When matters get out of hand, they scalp and shoot him instead. Coming in on this grisly scene, Beth defends her sanity by simply erasing it from her memory. In its place, she creates an alternate reality built upon her favorite soap opera. She becomes convinced that the show’s lead, the handsome and smarmily sincere Dr. David Ravell, is the man to whom she was once engaged. Naturally, she heads for Los Angeles where the show is produced in search of happiness. On the way, she explains her quest to one woman, noting that “this is my first time out of Kansas,” to which her listener responds, “I should call you Dorothy!” And, indeed, like the Dorothy of Frank Baum’s tale, she does get to meet the Wizard of Oz in the person of George McCord (Greg Kinnear), who plays her tirelessly caring hero on television. Behind illusion’s curtain, however, McCord is just another jaded actor who long ago traded in his artistic dreams for a comfortable, steady TV berth. When the delusional Betty responds to him as though he were the show’s Dr. Ravell, he assumes she is a clever method actress trying to land herself a part in the production. Mistaking her ingenuous sweetness for a dazzlingly accomplished performance, he declares, “This is totally rejuvenating. I haven’t felt this way since I was with Stella Adler in New York.” Betty’s innocence redeems him from his professional cynicism.

Also redeemed is Charlie (Morgan Freeman), the professional hitman who has been pursuing her. Like McCord, he falls under the magic of Betty’s niceness. Although he has only been in her presence a few minutes, he imagines Betty to be the woman of his dreams. She’s too innocent and pure to kill. Unaccountably,he, too, is affected by the Oz fantasy:Her image appears to him dressed asDorothy and dances with him under theNevada stars at the very edge of theGrand Canyon.

These conceits are amusing and well acted. Kinnear is quite wonderful as the self-satisfied actor rediscovering his artistic passion. Freeman, a consummate screen performer, almost makes us believe in his soulful hitman who thinks of himself as “a garbage man of the human condition,” cleansing away the more rotten members of the species—but not Betty. “You’re different,” he tells her, visibly transformed by her natural goodness.(Freeman is good, but the cliché of the high-minded professional killer is awfully tired.) He looks deep into Betty’s troubled yet trusting eyes and tries to reassure her: “You don’t need any man. You know why? You’ve got yourself.”

This paean to self-esteem is meant to validate Betty’s innocence as a redemptive force. It’s here that LaBute fully reveals his sentimentality: Innocence and niceness do not redeem; virtue does, and virtue requires honing on the grinding wheel of hard experience. Betty may learn she’s not in Kansas anymore, but this hardly equips her to defeat wicked witches and save cowardly lions. LaBute is a talented filmmaker, but he needs to take some time off to ingest a healthy dose of Nathaniel Hawthorne, still our finest critic of sentimental innocence and obsessive puritanism.

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is also compromised by sentimentality, but not as damagingly. It unreels like a mordant valentine sent to his younger self, the wunderkind who began writing music criticism for national rock magazines when he was 15. One only wishes his mordancy weren’t so muted by his nostalgia. He has a deeply troubling story to tell; unfortunately, it’s glazed over with a coating of candy-colored dreaminess. The larger portion of his audience—the very portion most in need of disturbance—will be left happily undisturbed.

An appropriately owl-faced Patrick Fugit plays William Miller, Crowe’s alter ego, an intellectually precocious kid who is also remarkably innocent. We first meet him as an 11-year-old in San Diego. It’s 1969, and he’s walking home with his mother (Frances McDormand) from a screening of To Kill a Mocking Bird, discussing the film’s moral implications. When they arrive home, Mrs. Miller discovers a real moral issue. Her 18-year-old daughter has brought a forbidden Simon and Garfunkel album into the house. When the girl asks her what’s wrong with it, Mrs. Miller points to the cover photo. “Look,” she says, indicating the singers’ eyes. “They’re on drugs!” Distraught, the daughter screams back, “You’re destroying our adolescence!” The mother quietly replies, “Adolescence is a marketing tool.” The audience at the screening I attended laughed mockingly at this. But as delivered by McDormand, it’s perhaps the film’s most incisive observation. The commercial exploitation of the adolescent has bedevilled our society since World War II. Still, one can understand the laughter. As written, the mother’s role straddles a dramatic fence. Is she a figure of ridicule or the film’s moral voice? Perhaps Crowe wants it both ways in order to suggest how helpless adults are before the juggernaut of popular culture. Still, in this case, I’d prefer a performance that sacrificed some subtlety in order to make unmistakable the cogency of Mrs. Miller’s arguments. To his credit, Crowe tellingly supports her a few minutes later when the soundtrack features a Simon and Garfunkel ditty about the pleasures of smoking. The lyrics are so ambiguous that we can’t tell whether it’s tobacco the boys are hymning or something a tad stronger.

The film is filled with such having-it-both-ways moments. It’s as if Crowe can’t make up his mind about the moral implications of his youthful experiences. On one matter, however, he is resolved. In the 1960’s, America’s popular culture arrived at a fateful crossroads: While Harper Lee’s inspiring morality tale played at the Bijou, on the stereo at home, callow boys were baying for instant gratification. We were at a pretty pass, and today it’s clear we went the wrong way.

It’s this pass William must negotiate as the film moves ahead four years to 1973. After writing some short pieces on rock music for his hero Lester Bangs, editor of Creem magazine, he’s tapped sight unseen by Rolling Stone to cover an up-and-coming band called Stillwater. The name seems aptly chosen. Rot collects understanding water; as a fictional representative of the rock industry, this group fairly stinks with fetid self-indulgence.

Like practically all the children of our nation, only from a much closer vantage point, the wide-eyed William learns far more than any youngster should about sexual exploitation, drug use, and casual betrayal while traveling with these moral imbeciles. The band is composed of baby boomers, bred to a sickly amalgam of megalomaniacal self-righteousness and wanton hedonism. When a journalist asks the lead singer what he likes about being in rock ‘n’ roll, he answers with what has obviously become his mantric formula: “It’s not about money and popularity; it’s a lifestyle. One of us is going to save the world.” Then he adds with a leer, “And the chicks are great.” Their salvation consists of groupies, orgies, drugs, and—of course—the sheer unremitting din of electronic amplification that conveniently drowns out all chance of sustained reflection and any lingering qualms of conscience. In their gospel,only the road of excess can lead to the palace of wisdom. William finds all this exciting; What 15-year-old boy wouldn’t? At the same time, he’s disturbed by how the 30-ish band members take advantage of girls no older than himself.

To assuage his misgivings, the 16-year-old leader of Stillwater’s groupies. PennyLane (Kate Hudson) takes pains to assure William they don’t feel used at all. “I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you don’t take it seriously, you’ll never get hurt.” It’s a moment made all the chillier by the cute manner in which this waif wrinkles her nose as she delivers her sermon on no-fault sexuality.

Time and again, Crowe underlines the destructive delusions of his characters and the culture they helped create. In one concert scene, faulty wiring connecting his instrument to its amplifiers nearly electrocutes Stillwater’s lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). The moment symbolically reveals the destructive nature of rock itself. After all, it’s the genre’s reliance on technology that is largely responsible for killing off any real musical talent that might have developed. What discipline does it take to bang out chords on an electric guitar? Crank up the volume to ear-splitting levels, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. It’s all so easy.

One of the film’s most telling moments occurs when William finds himself with the band on a plane hired by their new high-powered agent, a slick operator who has promised them big-time success. They get caught in a thunderstorm; as the plane shivers and bucks uncontrollably, everyone on board becomes convinced that this is the end. The agent falls into remorse and compulsively confesses to a hit-and-run accident. Years ago on a dark Vermont road, he was speeding to his next engagement when he hit a man full force with his car. Instead of stopping to see whether the unfortunate fellow was alive or dead, he just kept going, never looking back. “I still see his face after all these years,” he wails. When the plane manages to land safely, no one says anything more about it; the confession nevertheless lingers in our minds. It seems to me a perfect metaphor of how our commercially manufactured popular culture treats its public. American entertainment executives who certainly know better have been on a hit-and-run course for 50 years, mowing down the lives of millions of kids with salacious, vicious, and depraved music and movies. They’ve never looked back in their rush to the bank. But, as Penny Lane counsels, if we don’t take it seriously, we won’t be hurt. Or will we?

If Crowe is easier on these people than he should be, at least he’s raised the right questions.