A movie where Carly Simon serves as guiding light can’t be all bad. Then again, a romantic comedy that starts by quoting Shakespeare (“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” from The Tempest) has something else on its mind, besides the usual boy-meets-girl cuteness. But, while Little Black Book does scoot off in some peculiar directions, it is more improbably intriguing than completely successful.
It begins with a scene that recurs near the end, with Stacy Holt (Brittany Murphy) guiding her adorable Volkswagen through traffic, her face tear-streaked and her voiceover semi-pensive, as she begins to describe the cause of her sorrows. Stacy takes you back to her childhood, when her mother explains that “everything could be solved by listening to Carly Simon.” By way of illustration, the film offers a distraught mom (Sharon Lawrence) stuck in traffic, enduring a latest tragedy by cranking Greatest Hits, young daughter (Katie Murphy) seated staunchly by her side.
Stacy grows up admiring another power-girl icon, Diane Sawyer, aiming to work with her some day. En route to that ambition, she lands a job as associate producer for The Kippie Kann Show (titular host played by Kathy Bates). A onetime network darling à la Oprah, Kippie’s now syndicated out of New Jersey, that is, stooping to the sleaziest of concepts in order to eek out bits of ratings, soliciting onstage “reality” from sexy midgets, hot hoochie mamas, and incestuous strippers. Though you might imagine high-minded and good-hearted Stacy would be startled by the show’s moral paucity or even the daily frenzy, she is instead transfixed by the control room’s practical approach to chaos: this is, she exults, tv at its edgiest (including all sorts of foul language), promising her the experience she believes will take her to the top.
At the same time, she’s sort of distracted by her current romance with luscious Derek (Ron Livingston), a New Jersey Devils scout (note the recurrent Shakespearean reference) whom she believes to be her wholly in-sync soulmate. Yes it’s a little strange that he’s never wanted her to meet his parents, but it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy if she couldn’t ferret out a little tension in her ostensibly perfect and fabulously on-track existence.
Predictably, said tension is exacerbated by Stacy’s dealings with a girlfriend, in this case, fellow producer Barb (Holly Hunter, who terrific though she is, can’t quite make sense of the muck into which Barb must descend to accommodate the plot’s hectic machinations). After working on the show for some three years, Barb has built up the requisite reality tv-workers’ cynicism, as well as an aversion to being touched (which repeatedly throws off Stacy’s best huggy inclinations). Even as this physical tic might be understood as a sign of more entrenched emotional difficulty, the girls’ friendship becomes increasingly intricate, to the point that Stacy begins asking for romance advice from a woman whose own carefully guarded history sounds quite unpleasant and unresolved.
And then, the gimmick: Stacy stumbles on Derek’s Palm while he’s out on the road, and don’t you know, she can’t help but peek, perhaps inspired by the suggestion by Barb that this electronic “little black book” is a “girl’s best friend.” You might imagine she’d, you know, talk to the boyfriend, but Stacy digs herself into a deep hole of deception and stress. The next day, while not exactly proud of what she’s done, Stacy blabs her discoveries to Barb (solidifying their bond in the process). Namely, Derek keeps beach-bikini pictures of one ex, Joyce (Julianne Nicholson, exquisitely subtle costar of Tully), shares dog custody with another, Dr. Rachel Keyes (Rashida Jones), and hasn’t quite told the truth about his sex life with a third, supermodel Lulu Fritz (Josie Maran).
Barb comes up with a yuckily devious plan, such that Stacy uses her tv credentials to gain access to the exes (pretending she’s doing research for upcoming shows), calls herself Barb, and learns supposed “truths” about Derek’s past, or maybe just faulty memories of women who have moved on. Stacy’s detective work is more and more discomfiting, as she enlists not only Barb but also another ambitious young producer, Ira (Kevin Sussman), in her “interviews,” and then finds herself actually getting to like Joyce. Stacy starts to consider Joyce a “friend,” going so far as to advise her on her lingering feelings for Derek, even though Joyce thinks her name is “Barb.”
Still, the film’s most original aspect is its focus on the Stacy-Barb friendship, strange as it turns, to the point that Derek is actually absent for most of the proceedings. This plot point also allows Stacy time for a brief flirtation with coffee shop clerk named, all too appropriately, Random (Gavin Rossdale, perhaps taking a page from wife Gwen Stefani’s career expansion book), who appears for no reason other than to look dreamy, suggesting Stacy’s capacity for cheating, maybe.
Little Black Book‘s talk show background (so-called “reality”) provides grist for moralizing about just how mean reality tv people can be. Stacy’s lesson is quite painful for everyone involved, not the sort of thing that romantic comedies tend to pull out as denouements. The more typical use of talk shows occurs at the start of Hope Floats or the remake of The Stepford Wives, the lunatic point of departure for a heroine’s recovery of her sanity. Here, the talk show becomes a forum for some standard tawdry revelations, some meta-textual judgments of character, and, least interestingly, Stacy’s faux self-evaluation and corny self-understanding. She comes out of it still thinking that Diane Sawyer is a step up from reality tv.