Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Starring Brittany Murphy, Ron Livingston, and Holly Hunter. \r\nLittle Black Book\r\nDirected by Nick Hurran. Written by Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell. Rated PG-13.
Love Hurts

Little Black Book is a romantic comedy that takes a shocking turn.


One of the great things about being a film critic is that just when I think I can’t be surprised anymore, a movie comes along that leaves me absolutely gobsmacked. That’s what Little Black Book did. It wasn’t because it was better than I expected, though it is good. It was because this movie, after spending roughly an hour being the wispy little romantic comedy that it’s being marketed as, turns into a sadistic dark comedy. The plot twists in The Village have nothing on the ones here -- stop reading now if you want to be surprised when you get to the theater.

Brittany Murphy plays Stacy, a newly hired associate producer for a nationally syndicated Jerry Springer-like tv talk show host (Kathy Bates). Stacy’s been living with NHL scout Derek (Ron Livingston) for a year when she discovers that a guest on the show is one of his ex-girlfriends. She’s curious because he doesn’t discuss his past, and when he’s away on a long trip without his Palm Pilot, she looks up his exes to see if he’s the cheating type, using her job as a cover. When she discovers that Derek has been seeing them socially without telling her, she actively schemes to pry him away from them, aided and encouraged at every turn by Barb, her best friend at work (Holly Hunter).

What they’re doing is despicable, yet we go along with them because we’ve seen so many characters behave this way in romantic comedies and because Stacy and Barb are funny and full of joie de vivre. Screenwriters Melissa Bell and Elisa Carter pack the script densely with wordplay -- the puns, alliterative phrases, and other devices fly at you like explosions in an action thriller. The ensemble cast does it all justice, and Murphy’s surprisingly quick at keeping up with the distinguished talent around her (even if she hits her limits as an actress later on).

That’s after her character is sucker-punched in a huge way. Barb conspires with her other colleagues to engineer a massive, prolonged, and extremely public humiliation for Stacy, Derek, and the exes, including the movie’s one truly likable character played by Julianne Nicholson. Having accomplished this, Barb promptly turns on the co-workers who helped her and uses the situation to single-handedly destroy the careers of everyone in the office, including her own. Then she climbs on top of the equipment in the studio’s control booth and surveys the wreckage with this unforgettable, orgasmic look of triumph on her face. This is the most twisted, evil character Hunter has ever played (even taking into account The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom), and she plays it with a magnificent, terrible force.

There’s a happy ending to all this, but it’s so baldly unconvincing that it’s clearly a case of the filmmakers’ throwing mainstream audiences a bone. It would have been much more credible if Stacy had committed suicide or entered a convent. Little Black Book will probably appall many viewers who go in expecting just another chick flick, but others will no doubt enjoy seeing this film peel back the conventions of romantic comedies to show the rotten assumptions underneath.

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