Little Black Book, with its Carly Simon soundtrack all but daring you to tune it out before it begins, is being marketed as a daffy romantic comedy in which a woman plows through her boyfriend's Palm to uncover his past relationships. In truth, the movie is anything but light and frothy; it's actually disquietingly dark to the point of being downright disagreeable. It's a self-satisfied, self-loathing mess that demands you adore and cheer for the very person you come to hate well before its 105 minutes are up. Little Black Book will leave you feeling scuzzy.
Saucer-eyed Brittany Murphy -- who, at age 26, can play 16 or 36 with impressive alacrity -- is Stacy Holt, a Jersey girl who has dreamed since she was in braces of working with Diane Sawyer. Having learned from her mother (Sharon Lawrence) that there's no tragedy that can't be cured with a little Carly -- thus forcing two renditions of "Nobody Does It Better" in two different bathroom scenes -- Stacy has climbed her way to the bottom. She's a rookie producer at a daytime talk show in Trenton, hosted by Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates), the Garden State offspring of Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey whose name, among other things, conjures images of fresh doughnuts. There she's taken under the broken wing of associate producer Barb, played by Holly Hunter like some hateful variation of her character in Broadcast News. It's essentially the same role, as the driven and volatile producer for whom every show is a matter of life or death, turned inside out. Her face gaunt and figure skeletal, and with a cigarette dangling out of a mouth that never stops moving, Hunter plays Barb like the idealist who's had every bit of hope and faith crushed out of her now-hollow shell.
It's Barb, at the suggestion of fellow producer Ira (Kevin Sussman, playing the nebbish with Eraserhead hair), who convinces Stacy to go through the PDA of her boyfriend, Derek (Ron Livingston), to find out about the life story he's not terribly interested in rehashing. (Nor does he much care to know about her old life; what's done, he says, is done.) Turns out Derek used to date a supermodel, and Stacy wants to know more about his past, if only to have some idea about what kind of future they might have together. (Never mind that in their two scenes together, Livingston and Murphy have the chemistry of perfect strangers.) But the more she digs, the less she likes. There's the bulimic model who insists their relationship was purely sexual, the gynecologist with whom Derek still shares a dog, and the freckle-faced chef who was the love of Derek's life. Stacy actually befriends the latter, Joyce (Julianne Nicholson), without revealing her intentions or true identity, only to betray her -- and everyone else -- with disquieting ease.
Screenwriters Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell and director Nick Hurran drop hints along the way that Derek is still involved with at least one of these women; Stacy is justified in her quest, no matter how many people she has to lie to in order to ferret out the truth. But it becomes apparent rather quickly that it's Stacy who's doing the betraying: She keeps referring to herself as a "lying scumbag" and "lying sack of fertilizer" for using the pilfered Palm and her job on the Kippie Kann show to round up and surreptitiously interrogate her beau's exes. The audience nods its head in agreement every time she says it; she deserves no sympathy or understanding. Yet the movie still demands you root for Stacy and celebrate her TV-biz success, no matter how many people she steps over or hearts she breaks or lives she ruins.
With the exception of Derek and Joyce, the filmmakers fill the screen with characters so odious that you can't wait for the movie to end so you never have to look at them or listen to them ever again. To be generous -- perhaps far too generous -- it's quite possible the filmmakers wanted theirs to be the candy that looked sweet on the outside but tasted like bile when bitten into. They drop every suggestion that was their intention, setting their movie backstage at a show where guests (and even the people who work there) are merely ratings-attracting chum, then stockpiling it with narcissistic, manipulative and scheming characters whose every action is born of self-interest.
If Little Black Book was intended as a satire of Springer and his guests, whose lives are open books turned to epithet-laden pages scrawled in crayon, it fails miserably. Its climax, set during a live broadcast of Kippie's show, isn't revelatory or clever, even with Hunter sprawled about the control room like some spastic version of Ed Harris's producer in The Truman Show. It's just messy and mean-spirited, a movie falling apart and only pretending to be about something. Then it has the nerve to give Stacy the happy ending she and the movie don't deserve, because she does nothing redeemable till she's backed into a corner. She's rewarded for her treachery. Little Black Book has only a giant black heart.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.