Little Black Book (2004)

littleblackbook1My boss at work knows I love movies, and that I have a hard time enjoying romantic comedies.  So she insisted I give Little Black Book a try, and last night, give it a try we did.

And we actually enjoyed it.

Stacy (Brittany Murphy) dreams of one day working for Diane Sawyer. She has always wanted to work in broadcast journalism, and works toward her goals with clownish tenacity. Like her mother before her, she finds solace in singing old Carly Simon tunes when life gets her frazzled, something she finds herself doing a few times after she lands a job as assistant producer on the Kippie Kann Do morning talk show (really just another Jerry Springer clone). 

While researching the show’s often tawdry format, her boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston) lets slip that he used to date a supermoel featured on a recent episode. As he departs for business trips out of town, Stacy, inspired by an idea put forth by one of the show’s producers, starts digging into Derek’s past relationships, about which he’s been less than forthcoming.

I like romantic comedies that break the paradigm. We know the routine well enough we can recite it in our sleep: cute boy meets cute girl amid some hair-brained scheme one of them (or somone associated with them) has just concocted. They fall in love.  They sleep with each other. And the very next day, the hair-brained scheme blows up and the lovers call it quits, only to realize what horrible messes their lives had been before meeting their One True Love, and get back together just before the credits roll.

Little Black Book has the requisite cute-girl-meets-cute-boy opener, and then cuts another path. I could have done without Brittany Murphy’s pontificating voiceovers; Holly Hunter as Barb, Stacy’s shrewd mentor, disappointingly restrains her talent to a more monotonous level; and the climax does a little paint-by-numbers action.  But I will weather all of that so long as the journey getting there isn’t lifted from Pretty Woman (a film I powerfully loath).

The script takes the time and effort to shake up the paradigm enough to make the ending a real guessing game. No real noble hero emerges from among a cast of characters whose motives inspire dubious means to justify their ends. It creates an environment that deals (somewhat) honestly with the pain and paranoia that fills the void when virtue cannot find a home. 

What makes it stick is the supporting cast, particularly Julianne Nicholson, who, as one of Derek’s old girlfriends, taps a level of warmth and humanity that managed to switch my programed, Pretty Woman-tainted mind into thinking this movie just might not go where many other rom-coms have gone before. The film ends up reversing some of the expected payoffs, and adds a tiny (emphasis on “tiny”) level of moral complexity when the inevitable unravelling occurs near the end.   

Films like this one do not aspire to levels of inspiration like Moonstruck. They exist as charms meant to distract paying customers looking to find a glimmer of hope in their own lives while watching someone else on screen endure the hell and earn their happy ending.  It accomplishes those goals, so its enjoyment factor falls into that subjective realm of whatever mood strikes the viewer when the opening credits roll. What it lacks in truth, the film makes up in a few laughs, as well as some welcome surprises that refresh, if only a little, a genre too worn out on itself.

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