Paz de la Huerta delivers a bad performance for the ages in tonally scattershot 'Nurse 3D'
Nurse 3D Lionsgate
Director: Douglas Aarinokoski
Screenplay: Douglas Aarinokoski and David Loughery
Starring: Paz de la Huerta, Katrina Bowden, Corbin Bleu, Judd Nelson, Boris Kodjoe, Niecy Nash, Melanie Scrofano and Martin Donovan
Rated R / 1 hour, 24 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
If you're a fan of Childrens Hospital, you might remember the making-of episode, in which it's "revealed" that Malin Akerman's actress character - who plays Dr. Valerie Flame on the show within the show - has to sound out all of her lines phonetically because she is a Swede who speaks no English whatsoever.
I was reminded of that episode while watching Nurse 3D, because it's the only explanation I can come up with for the performance of lead actress Paz de la Huerta. It truly seems as if she's sounding out every letter. She gives no indication that she knows what any of it means. Why is she intoning those syllables like that? Why is she pausing in between words like that? Why is she raising or lowering her voice without reason? Are those facial expressions, or is she squinting to read a teleprompter?
There are only so many conclusions we can come to, so the hilarious Malin Akerman explanation works as well as any. In fairness to Nurse 3D, de la Huerta's acting here is not uncharacteristic. It has the same childlike, half-awake, half-drugged effect as usual, only this time in the service of a leading role, where it becomes unbearable. (Side note: At least two-thirds of her character's voiceover narration was clearly recorded by someone other than de la Huerta, adding yet another layer of confusion and distraction.)
De la Huerta's willingness to take chances, and to do just about anything a role requires, may make her a valuable asset, but there's only so much inept acting a movie can handle. Then again, using that as a criticism may be taking too much at face value. It's possible, even probable, that the horrendous lead performance is all part of the point - the embodiment of the cheap B-movie aesthetic director/co-writer Douglas Aarinokoski is going for. The worse the performance, the more absurd the film intentionally becomes.
But there's a sort of Poe's Law effect going on here, with genuinely bad acting being completely indistinguishable from a deliberate parody of bad acting. Whether de la Huerta is supposed to be a truly menacing and engaging antagonist or a winking caricature is beside the point - it's equally distracting either way. Assuming it's the latter, Nurse 3D is another in a long line of recent movies that fail because they attempt the impossible task of trying to be unintentionally funny on purpose.
Beyond that, both the film and the titular character suffer from a distracted sense of focus. Nurse Abby Russell (de la Huerta) is painted with too broad a horror-movie brush. She is first introduced as a kind of avenging angel for scorned women - even, or especially, women who don't yet know they've been scorned - as we see her seducing a married man in a nightclub, casually injecting him with a fatal paralytic drug and pushing him off a roof. This is what you philanderers get.
But when the story begins in earnest, and focuses on her mentorship of, and budding friendship with, the trusting and innocent new nurse Danni (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden), Abby becomes motivated by something else entirely. The film becomes about her obsession with her new friend - as both an emotional and sexual possession - and the jealousy and rage that spark up when Danni begins to gradually become wary of Abby's behavior. This inevitably leads to disturbing revelations about Abby's personal history.
The dueling narratives about Abby - here, a twisted vigilante for sexual retribution; there, a manipulative and obsessive emotional wreck - could both work in the same film. But in this case it doesn't feel like both are necessary. The former storyline, seen in the opening scenes, is seemingly introduced only to give us an idea of what Abby is capable of, long before Danni ever gets a sense of what kind of person she's getting involved with.
Still, the nurse-as-righteous-killer angle is fertile enough to warrant a whole narrative of its own, one not hampered by the crazy stalker narrative. That de la Huerta has to carry both storylines is its own separate problem.
Not, I hope, to harp too much on the subject, but her acting sticks out even more after the appearance, midway through, of Rachel Adams, the hospital's new, overly cheerful human resources rep. Melanie Scrofano's brief performance - simultaneously absurd and endearing - is a breath of fresh air.
If nothing else, in those few scenes Scrofano shows enough command of a tricky comic tone to suggest the movie may have been better off if she'd taken the lead role. She certainly couldn't be worse than de la Huerta.
Pulling off a brazenly fetishistic grindhouse movie like this - one with a frequently pantsless main character and a gleeful indulgence in the constant splattering of CGI blood - is tough enough to pull off with a capable lead. Nurse 3D (which, by the way, most people will be seeing in 2D, as I did) proves incapable of surviving without one.