In The Darkrnby George McCartneyrnSentiment and SentimentalityrnThere’s a crucial difference between sentimentrnand sentimentality. The first is arndirect, emotional response to strongrnprovocation; the second, a self-conscionsrnpursuit of provocation in order to revel inrnemotion. One is spontaneous; the other,rnmanufactured. This distinction is a troublingrnone for the artist, whose business itrnis to fabricate occasions that elicit honestrnemotions. As Joseph Conrad said of writingrnfiction, “It’s hard labor for life.”rnTo different degrees, the two films underrnreview this month settle for sentimentalit}’rnrather than laboring to evoke genuinernsentiment. The lapse is not fatal inrneither case, but it is disappointing.rnSentimentality might seem the leastrnlikely charge to level against NeilrnLaBute, director of Nurse Betty. His firstrntwo films seemed intent on cauterizingrnall vestiges of emotion from their narratives.rnIn the Company of Men (1997) wasrna remarkably accomplished debut inrnwhich he stripped bare the nihilism atrnthe heart of our culture’s liberated sexualrnpolitics. It’s a ferocious satire that wages arntake-no-hostages-war on male boorishness.rnHis second film. Your Friends andrnNeighbors (1999), continued the attackrnwith a sourly mounted sexual rondeletrnstaged to reveal that women as well asrnmen exploit desire for self-aggrandizement.rnIt’s a far more tendentious—andrnuglier—work than the first, hi the lightrnof Nurse Betty, it now seems the film inrnwhich LaBute lost the detachment necessaryrnto artistic perspective. He revealsrnhimself to be obsessively disgusted withrnsex itself, portraying it as an instrumentrninvariably wielded in the cause of sadisticrnvanit’ and leading inescapably to abusernand betrayal. This is not clarifying satire;rnit’s pathological scorn.rnWhile unrelenting contempt for therncrudit}- and heartiessness of human naturernmay seem cynically tough-minded,rnit is in fact sentimentally one-sided. Suchrna position refuses to accept the humanrncondition for what it is: a thoroughly homogenizedrnmixture of sin and virtue. Atrntheir extremes, cynics and sentimentalistsrnjoin forces in their denial of human reality.rnThey present an either/or morality inrnwhich the individual is judged whollyrndamnable or wholly innocent. It’s arnNurse BettyrnProduced by Gramercy Pictures andrnPropaganda FilmsrnDirected by Neil LaButernScreenplay by ]ohn C. Richards andrnJames FlambergrnDistributed by USA FilmsrnAlmost FamousrnProduced by DreamWorksrnand Vinyl FilmsrnDirected and written byrnCameron CrowernDistributed by Dreamworksrnmoral vision redolent of America’srnfounding folly: Puritanism.rnNurse Betty is supposed to be a comedyrnin which a good-hearted woman’s innocencernredeems the cvnics who crossrnher path. Although the film tries to berncharming, it is willfiilly pretentious andrnweirdly sentimental. We begin withrnwhat has become a LaBute commonplace:rna clueless woman in an abusive relationshiprnwith a worthless man, Bettyrn(Renee Zellweger) is a nice person marriedrnto Del (Aaron Eckhart), a creep whornmanages a Buick dealership in a Kansasrnsuburb, supplementing his income withrna bit of sideline drug-dealing. Even if wernweren’t shown him couch-bouncing hisrnsecretary at the office, we would knowrnhe’s despicable because he mocks Bettyrnfor being addicted to soap operas.rnThey’re for people who don’t have livesrnof their own, he sneers. Ironically andrnquite inadvertently, he corrects this characterrnflaw by creating a situation that literallyrnpropels Betty into her favorite soap,rnthe ripely titled “A Reason to Love.”rnIt all begins when Del tries to cheat hisrndrug-dealing associates, and they decidernto scare him. When matters get out ofrnhand, they scalp and shoot him instead.rnComing in on this grisly scene, Beth’ defendsrnher sanity by simply erasing it fromrnher memory. In its place, she creates anrnalternate realit)’ built upon her favoriternsoap opera. She becomes convinced thatrnthe show’s lead, the handsome andrnsmarmily sincere Dr. David Ravell, is thernman to whom she was once engaged.rnNaturally, she heads for Los Angelesrnwhere the show is produced in search ofrnhappiness. On the way, she explains herrnquest to one woman, noting that “this isrnmy first time out of Kansas,” to which herrnlistener responds, “I should call yournDorothy!” And, indeed, like the Dorothyrnof Frank Baum’s tale, she does get tornmeet the Wizard of Oz in the person ofrnGeorge McCord (Greg Kinnear), whornplays her tirelessly caring hero on television.rnBehind illusion’s curtain, however,rnMcCord is just another jaded actor whornlong ago traded in his artistic dreams for arncomfortable, steady TV berth. Wlien therndelusional Betty responds to him asrnthough he were the show’s Dr. Ravell, hernassumes she is a clever method actressrntrying to land herself a part in the production.rnMistaking her ingenuous sweetnessrnfor a dazzlingly accomplished performance,rnhe declares, “This is totallyrnrejuvenating. I haven’t felt this way sincernI was with Stella Adler in New York.”rnBetty’s innocence redeems him from hisrnprofessional cynicism.rnAlso redeemed is Charlie (MorganrnFreeman), the professional hitman whornhas been pursuing her. Like McCord, hernfalls under the magic of Betty’s niceness.rnAlthough he has only been in her presencerna few minutes, he imagines Betty tornbe the woman of his dreams. She’s toorninnocent and pure to kill. Unaccountably,rnhe, too, is affected by the Oz fantasy:rnHer image appears to him dressed asrnDorothy and dances with him under thernNevada stars at the very edge of thernGrand Canyon.rnThese conceits are amusing and wellrnacted. Kinnear is quite wonderful as thernself-satisfied actor rediscovering his artisticrnpassion. Freeman, a consummaternscreen performer, almost makes us believernin his soulful hitman who thinks ofrnhimself as “a garbage man of the humanrncondition,” cleansing away the more rottenrnmembers of the species —but not Bett-.rn”Y’ou’re different,” he tells her, visiblyrntransformed b’ her natural goodness.rn(Freeman is good, but the cliche of thernhigh-minded professional killer is awfullyrntired.) He looks deep into Betty’s troubledrnyet trusting eyes and tries to reassurernher: “You don’t need any man. Yournknow why? You’ve got yourself”rnThis paean to self-esteem is meant tornvalidate Betty’s innocence as a redemptivernforce. It’s here that LaBute fiilly re-rnDECEMBER 2000/47rnrnrn