Sentiment and Sentimentality

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...

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