“Little Black Book” continually makes reference to Mike Nichols’ popular 1988 comedy “Working Girl”–at one point it features a full-screen shot of a poster advertising that movie, and one of the running gags refers to the records of Carly Simon, whose songs filled its score, too. It was really unwise of the filmmakers to invite comparisons, because the new picture is so conspicuously inferior to the earlier one, both as light entertainment and as a fable of female empowerment. But even without them, this movie is definitely one you should scratch from your own little list.
There are plenty of reasons to avoid this curiously unpleasant chick flick about a young woman who snoops into her boyfriend’s past relationships while trying to break into television journalism by taking a job as an associate producer of a local “Jerry Springer” type of talkshow. One is that the script relies–as all too many do nowadays–on an almost constant stream of narration to carry the story. The heroine, flaky Stacy (Brittany Murphy), begins with a ten-minute segment explaining her life up to now and her burning desire to become the new Diane Sawyer, and as if that weren’t enough, she continues to prattle on through the rest of the picture, telling us things that should instead have been dramatized. The device is, of course, a favorite crutch of writers and directors who don’t know how to think and create in truly cinematic terms, and here it’s relied upon so persistently that it really becomes annoying, even if Stacy does occasionally blurt out some insult that applies quite aptly to the movie itself. Of course, even apart from the narration the story is a dud, an attempt to conjoin a cute if misconceived romantic comedy with a bitingly cynical satire of mean-spirited “reality” television that fails on both counts (and paints itself into so confined a narrative corner in the process that a satisfactory exit strategy proves entirely impossible). Another is that Murphy mugs so ferociously in the lead role that as the movie drones on, the effect is akin to fingers scraping a blackboard; you wince at the probability that she has yet another big scene coming up. (To be sure, Stacy is written as an airheaded buffoon anyway, but Murphy does her no favors by coming on so strong.) And she’s hardly alone. The movie also degrades two fine actresses of more advanced years, Holly Hunter and Kathy Bates–the former as another AP at the station who acts as a sort of female Iago to Stacy, manipulatively egging her on to contact her boyfriend’s former lovers (her motives are revealed in the last act) and the latter as Kippie Kann, the volatile, on-her-way-out hostess of the show itself, a special episode of which implausibly provides an unsavory (and incredible) resolution to the jumbled plot. But there are other, less egregious, warning signals, too. When a movie feels it necessary to include a flatulent dog as a supporting character, for example, it’s a good sign that it’s one to avoid. And when it also not only features the overexposed Stephen Tobolowsky (last seen as the villain in “Garfield”), this time as the unctuous producer of the talkshow, but has him wearing an awful hairpiece as well, it’s certainly time to bail out. (I haven’t mentioned Ron Livingston, whom you might remember as the star of “Office Space,” who plays Derek, the boyfriend whose past Stacy looks into here, because he fades completely into the background. It’s not entirely his fault, though: apparently some female scriptwriters as an inept at formulating good male characters as most males are at writing good female ones.) But as far as the performers are concerned, Hunter has a line that could well indicate her attitude as an actress rather than a character. “We all live in the same cesspool,” she sagely remarks. The only person who escapes the general air of sad thespian desperation is Julianne Nicholson, who makes the most serious of Derek’s previous girlfriends genuinely sympathetic. Technically “Little Black Book” is proficiently put together–Bob Ziembicki’s production design is slick, as is Theo van de Sande’s widescreen cinematography, and British director Nick Hurran keeps the picture moving along at a fairly brisk pace, in the apparent, but futile hope that speed might obscure its deeper flaws.
The heroine, of course, finally realizes that what she’s done was wrong. “Some secrets should remain secret,” she intones as part of that persistent narration. True; and some movies should remain unmade. “Little Black Book” was one of them. By the time its faux happy denouement rolls around, in fact, you might feel that you’ve sat through as unpalatable an experience as those the raucous, dumbbell audiences who attend the Kippie Kann show do.