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Dustin Putman

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Little Black Book (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Nick Hurran
Cast: Brittany Murphy, Holly Hunter, Ron Livingston, Kevin Sussman, Julianne Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Josie Maran, Rashida Jones, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sharon Lawrence, Gavin Rossdale, Dave Annable, Rick Overton, Vivian Bang, Sarah Amstutz, Carly Simon
2004 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual dialogue/references and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 29, 2004.

In today's technologically advanced world, where Palm Pilots and Blackberry's have only come to be widely acknowledged and used in recent years and the Internet is at virtually everyone's fingertips, it is much easier to dig up otherwise secretive information about anybody you're interested in learning about. This notion is at the forefront of "Little Black Book," directed by Nick Hurran, a comedy-drama that is innocuous for its first hour until it switches gears into cloying meanspiritedness just in time for its all-wrong climax. That the final scenes are handled with equal parts gentle truthfulness and feel-good charm is appreciated, but this positive reversal comes too late to undo the damage that has already been done.

Stacy Holt (Brittany Murphy) is a bright, still-wet-behind-the-ears dreamer who is delighted when she is hired to become an associate producer for a New Jersey-based, exploitative "Jerry Springer"-inspired daytime talk show hosted by Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates). Her promising gig at the show coincides with boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston) leaving town on business. Having found out Derek was once in a relationship with a former guest on the show, bulimic model Lulu Fritz (Josie Maran), Stacy is uncontrollably curious to find out about her cagey boyfriend's past loves. With the help of savvy co-worker Barb (Holly Hunter) and the information he has stored on his Palm Pilot, Stacy goes against her better judgment to track down Derek's ex-girlfriends and, by using the talk show as a ruse, interview them. Soon she is in way over her head, discovering sympathy in her heart for these women, particularly friendly chef Joyce Adams (Julianne Nicholson), and realizing that messing with their private lives can only end badly.

There may be something insightful to say about the relationship topics on display here, but "Little Black Book," unfortunately, is not that film. It also attempts to make a statement about the potentially dangerous manipulation behind reality television, but confuses perception with sheer cruelty. Before the picture does this, however, in a third-act centerpiece that is woefully hateful and unnecessary, "Little Black Book" is mostly just uninteresting fluff. As a playful comedy, the laughs are, by and large, stale, sexually-laced throwaways. And as a romance, there is none. For a film centering on a young woman's snooping to find out about a boyfriend she supposedly loves, the relationship between Stacy and Derek plays like a weightless afterthought. There is no connection between the two in their too-few scenes together, and so the entire premise lacks urgency and a rooting interest. Simply put, it never seems like anything is at stake for Stacy in regard to her romance with Derek.

When the finale arrives, exposing some characters to have a different agenda than expected and exploiting the mistakes Stacy has made, the light tone is drained out and replaced by something surprisingly ugly and, in a nutshell, evil. This may be the moralistic point behind Elisa Bell (2004's "Sleepover") and Melissa Carter's screenplay, but the very immorality they use in serving it up for viewers is unforgivable and trite. The same things, concerning the fragility of relationships, the importance of honesty, and the detestable, shark-infested world of reality talk shows, could have been attained without making a charade of the characters and their feelings. When the tone changes yet again toward maudlin sermonizing, director Nick Hurran goes overboard in a heedless aim to make what has just come before easier to swallow.

As the ambitious, inquisitive Stacy Holt, Brittany Murphy (2003's "Uptown Girls") gives it her best shot in making the proceedings palatable. Murphy again proves she has what it takes to be a leading lady—she is fresh, quirky, and shrewd in always bypassing the predictable route to go for something more interesting in her performances. She also keeps Stacy a likable person even when she is doing the wrong things, a difficult task that Murphy pulls off. Save for Julianne Nicholson (1999's "The Love Letter"), quite good as the kindly ex Stacy befriends even as she betrays her, the rest of the actors are not treated fairly. Holly Hunter (2003's "Thirteen") has the thankless "best friend" part until her true colors shine through in the climax, Kathy Bates (2002's "About Schmidt") is wasted as talk show host Kippie Kann, and Ron Livingston (2003's "The Cooler") is given the short thrift as the one-dimensional Derek.

The closing of "Little Black Book" makes a valiant effort in saving the movie as a whole. It is especially refreshing that the end does not hinge on who Stacy ends up with, but on what she has learned and how she is going to press on in her life as a wiser person. And the very last scene, unlikely as it is, is delightfully cute and clever, making you want to like the movie more than it deserves. The not-so-subtle allusions to 1988's far superior "Working Girl"—it is one of Stacy's favorite movies and she is in love with the music of Carly Simon (who contributes practically the entire soundtrack)— also work effectively to underscore Stacy's rollercoaster journey.

If there is a reason to see "Little Black Book," it is for the effortlessly enchanting Brittany Murphy, but that isn't quite reason enough. The majority of the picture is too misguided and dreary—and yes, needlessly impertinent—to wade through to get to the good stuff. This is one "Little Black Book" that should have remained closed.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman