e-mail us

At the Movies

Hints of humor


Nurse Betty is the early favorite of young sophisticates as this year’s fall comedy. There’s been lots of buzz, favorable advance reviews and a sense that it will be a breakout movie for Renée Zellweger, who plays its sweet, almost terminally naive title character. My main problem is that director Neil LaBute is one of the last people I’d go to if I were looking for comedy.

“In the Company of Men,” the film that made his reputation a few years back, told the near-sickening story of several male office workers who pretend to be smitten with a less than gorgeous colleague. Of course, there is such a thing as black comedy, and it can even be uproariously funny -- see “Doctor Strangelove.”

But funny in “Nurse Betty” only means making its audience feel superior to its leading lady, who is unable to distinguish between TV drama and reality.

The movie opens with the grisly murder of Betty’s husband Del (Aaron Eckhart). Betty observes the last two minutes of this savagery through a partly open door while watching her favorite daytime soap, “A Reason to Love,” featuring Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear). Betty answers a few questions from the police, packs her bag and leaves Fair Oaks, Kan., on a trip to Los Angeles, where she believes she can find Dr. Ravell. Meanwhile Del’s killers, Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock), who were obviously involved in a criminal scheme that went sour, are looking for Betty, on the assumption she may have what they had hoped to pick up from their victim.

There are some amusing adventures along the way, and when she hits L.A., Betty manages to get accepted as a nurse by acting heroically during a shootout. Soon she even gets invited to a show-biz reception where she meets Ravell, a self-centered actor named George McCord, who interprets her bubbling conversation (she always calls him David) as first-class improvisation and a bid for a part in the show.

Meanwhile, we get occasional glimpses of the criminal pursuers. I rather hoped Freeman would take over the movie -- he talked of the present job as his last and of his hope to retire to some place south of the border -- but suddenly LaBute has him get soft about Betty; “Sort of a wholesome Doris Day thing going,” he says to himself.

LaBute doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how to bring his material to a climax, and you can probably guess most of what happens. The characters don’t seem to learn much from their experiences, except possibly the noble Charlie.

I’m sure someone in the future is again going to squeeze some legitimate movie fun out of our confusion of TV with reality, but “Nurse Betty” ought to make everyone drop the idea for a while.

Madadayo isn’t going to make it to the mutliplexes, even though it is the last film of one of the greatest of the post-World War II directors, Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa, who died in 1998, knew how to employ violence to serious effect in “Roshomon,” “Ran” and a whole series of samurai thrillers. He may well have realized that this would be the last movie he would make, and it is instructive to see him use material of great simplicity to convey an atmosphere of serenity, idealism and quiet humor.

“Madadayo” starts with the last class of Hyakken Uchida, a professor of German literature, who has decided (in 1943, in the midst of the war) to devote himself full-time to writing. After the professor retires to a modest house, two of his former students (Hisashi Igawa and George Tokoro) decide to test its security. But Uchida has anticipated their efforts and put up a “Burglar’s Entrance” sign over his garden gate -- followed by similar signs that lead prospective burglars back outside. Uchida’s impishness and sense of acceptance is strengthened by the constant support of his gently radiant wife (Kyoko Kagawa), and even survives the Allied bombs that force them to move to a doorless hut on a bombed-out estate.

“Madadayo” is, above all, a wryly sympathetic study of old age. One of the students uses the term “pure gold” to describe the professor. I remained enough of a misanthrope to wish they didn’t laugh so lustily after each of Uchida’s mild sallies, but their sentiment was a rare expression of unaffected love. At the annual birthday banquets, which give the movie its title, the assembled students chant “Mahda-Kai?” (“Are you ready yet?”), and Uchida responds, “Madadayo” (“Not yet”), before downing a large glass of beer.

“Madadayo” is unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve; only Kurosawa’s sureness of touch prevents it from becoming cloying. This is a rare movie about an old man who is grateful for each new day and remains a model of simplicity even as he receives the homage of his former students. We come to realize what Uchida has taught his students: to drink together, in a spirit of joy and genuine community.

The performance film, The Original Kings of Comedy, is also about community. The happiness of its original audience -- it was shot by Spike Lee in February at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina -- is completely genuine.

With Hollywood making such poor use of its major African-American actors -- offering them emotionally overwrought scripts that depend on macho appeal and mindless violence -- we should be grateful that the work of these four black comedians (Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac) can be seen in theaters all over the United States.

Yes, the constant repetition of the m-f word is tiresome and self-defeating. I wouldn’t have taken my mother, but many of us can learn something if we’re patient and watch carefully.

These men have total rapport with the people in front of them. Lee is wise in letting us see individual responses among many who can hardly hold themselves back from starting to dance or even rushing up to the stage to hug one of the comedians. If the tone is male, ribald and super-confident, the comedians also show their affection -- Steve Harvey’s hello to the city is a friendly “How you-all doing with your country asses?”

Harvey contributes a hilarious summary of the inanities of “Titanic,” making it clear that black musicians wouldn’t be so stupid as to go on playing as the ship went down. He also offers a brilliant putdown of rap music, insisting on the central principle of this show: “One mike. Always one mike.” In rap, of course, everyone has a mike, and the result is “We can’t understand what one of your asses is saying.” He then runs across the stage, shrieking jibberish, as the audience explodes with recognition.

When Hughley seems to be going over the top, he pulls back with “Without love, you’re missing some major shit in your life.” Like the others, Hughley has no hesitation in talking “dirty” to women, but judging by audience reaction, what seems to come across is an unsentimental affection, even respect. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that though blacks are the vast majority, there is also a sizeable number of young white men and women in this Charlotte audience.)

Predictably, much of the humor is framed in terms of generalizations about white and black behavior. The whites generally seem stupid, as in Cedric the Entertainer’s example of black people running from a mass murderer while whites want to stop and find out what the excitement is about. Most of this is quite good-natured, and includes jibes at a black convict conducting a bungled escape and the possibilities of future black expertise in skiing -- you never forget that you’re in the hands of pros.

I was least responsive to the last performer, Bernie Mac, not because he wasn’t skilled but because his darker humor drew on a (simulated) rage against young people, and even children. Of course, I am old enough to remember chortling when W. C. Fields used to threaten Baby LeRoy with extinction, but Fields was constantly humiliated and was never a very convincing oppressor.

Mac also offers a belated explanation of various m-f usages, one that is grammatically clever but doesn’t explain why these talented comedians rely on them. They don’t need to.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000