This one didn't strike me as a dark comedy the first time I saw it. In fact, I found it to be sort of sad and sort of goofy. I must have missed the scene that first time where the filmmaker assures us that Betty's behavior is amnesiac and not just some inexplicable, forgetful meandering. But on second viewing the story does have some elements of dark comedy, I guess, notably the reversals: pleasure the audience is to take in the murder of Betty's husband as well as the disappointment when the bad guy gets it in the end. Even so, I'm not convinced.
The premise of Nurse Betty is extremely appealing, actually. Betty is a small-town waitress who is a loyal soap opera fan. She has a horrible husband who cheats on her with his secretary--we know because we witness a sex scene where we must look at his disgusting body on top of his platform-stiletto-wearing girlfriend on a cot in his office, and we observe the paneling where her shoes have abraded deep grooves from numerous hours of uninspired sex. It's Betty's birthday, and while her co-workers celebrate with her, giving her a life-sized cutout of her favorite soap opera character and a collection to help fund her dream of going to nursing school, her husband doesn't remember or get the hint of the cupcake with birthday candle she leaves in front of them on the kitchen table (he even takes a big bite out of it without noticing); instead he says he's going out, and she says she'll go to the movie with a girlfriend. When it turns out that the girlfriend can't make it, she stays home instead and watches a videotape of the week's episodes of her favorite soap opera and favorite character, a doctor played by Greg Kinnear, typecast as a self-absorbed jerk.
When her husband comes home with two men who supposedly want to buy a car from him, he assumes Betty is out with her friend; she turns the volume down on the television in her room and pays no attention until they argue and it turns violent; they wind up killing her husband, who by this time has become so reprehensible to the audience, we wished he would come to some horrific end. The killers leave without realizing she witnessed the gruesome killing. Betty calls the ambulance and reports the event to the police, but her affect is wrong. She is utterly calm, like Mrs. Mallard in Kate Chopin's ironic story, "The Awakening,"
where everyone is afraid to tell the woman with heart trouble that her husband is dead, but when they finally do, she's absolutely delighted. Anyway, after the police have arrived and we assume she's told them what has happened, Betty pleasantly bids the police chief and newspaper reporter goodbye and leaves for California, where she intends to meet up with the doctor. The only trouble is, the doctor only exists inside the story of her soap opera.
This premise is not completely outlandish, when you think about it. In fact, it's pretty believable to me. Think of the many people who watch soap operas and for whatever reason become so utterly absorbed by them that they lose the dividing line between the imaginary and the real. I remember talking to my grandmother one day and realizing that for her adventures the character Marlena on Days of our Lives had were blending with what she read in magazines about actress Deidre Hall, who plays her on the television show. The idea of the character melded with the persona of the actress until, to my grandmother, she became a single blonde entity whose life was lived on television for our entertainment. It was a frightening predictor of the plot of The Truman Show, frankly, though to me it wasn't particularly entertaining at the time, indicative as it was of the decay of gray matter caused by transient ischemic attacks or some other senility inducing thing. That phenomenon is familiar enough, though, that it's easy to think of writer John C. Richards starting with that premise of a soap opera fan for whom the show is entirely too real.
From there, the humor to me is obvious. Of course, Betty miraculously finds a job as a nurse though she has no nursing credentials, and she manages to meet Kinnear, who plays George McCord, who plays Dr. David Ravell. By this time Betty has convinced herself and her new roommate that David Ravell is her former fiancé and that he left her husband Del (still alive) for him. Kinnear/McCord/Ravell thinks she is a method actress who is going to absurd lengths for a part in the soap opera, so when at long length he convinces the writer to put her in the soap opera, Betty surprises everyone by falling apart. Meanwhile, the killers are driving cross country trying to find Betty. They have the best lines in the film, like when Chris Rock says, "Where am I, purgatory?" and Morgan Freeman responds, "Worse, Texas."
When Betty falls apart, Kinnear's character shows his true colors as a jerk and belittles her in front of the cast. Between the shock of that and the surprise of lights and cameras in a world she imagined as real, Betty is stunned into remembering all that has happened to her. She rushes out and to her apartment, just in time for Del's killers to find her (and her roommate) there. We see a touching scene where the saner of the two killers, Morgan Freeman (who has fallen in love with Betty's picture) talks with her, but both killers get it in the end. Ultimately, all problems are solved and we find out that Betty will appear as Nurse Betty on the soap opera, but only long enough to save her money to go to nursing school.
One interesting part of the film to me is the racial identity of the killers. I found it at first disturbing that they had to be Black men in a story where they didn't really seem to need to be Black. I found it to be racist; on the other hand, though, I thought it was interesting casting decision because really these characters were by far more appealing and smarter (particularly Morgan Freeman) than anyone else in the film. That alone would make it interesting to discuss with students as a film, but as a dark comedy? I'm not sure. It functions as a dark comedy in terms of man's inhumanity to man and in terms of disregard for life, but if we want to situate this film into one of Wes Gehring's themes of dark comedies it really doesn't work: He says "man as beast, the absurdity of the world, and the omnipresence of death" are the main themes (Five Takes on Funny 84). I don't see all men as beasts in this, nor do I see the
omnipresence of death. I do see some absurdity in the world, but even
that's fixed in the end. It's a little too romantic and optimistic to be a dark comedy, isn't it? I say no to this film for the class, cute as it is.