I’m beginning to think that there’s some kind of curse attached to people who won kudos for their performances in Girl, Interrupted. Think about the careers and career moves of Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Brittany Murphy in the wake of that film. It’s not pretty. And Little Black Book does nothing to change that for Murphy.
Now, I’m not predisposed toward Murphy, who is forever stamped in my mind as the girl who appears to only have sex while standing up in 8 Mile. I might like her better if she didn’t play every scene so wide-eyed that she comes across like one of the saucer-orbed gamines in those kitschy 1960s paintings. Murphy seems in such a state of perpetual surprise that I can’t help thinking her shock stems from finding herself on a movie set without a clue as to what’s going on.
In the case of Book, she may well be justified in wondering. I certainly did. Promoted and apparently conceived as a romantic comedy, the film is neither very comedic, nor even slightly romantic. In fact, it’s a rather sad, sometimes bitter little movie that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be — and at the same time, can’t decide who or what its characters are.
Elisa Bell (the author of Sleepover) and first-time screenwriter Melissa Bell have crafted — if indeed that is the word — a script that flits from idea to idea without quite settling on anything, least of all a structure. Some movies thrive on this kind of anarchy — think of the ’60s “British Invasion” films, with their scattershot satire. Except that Book isn’t anarchic; it’s just messy. And what satire it can boast — all of it aimed at reality TV — plays like a knock-off of the 29-year-old Network (or more correctly, a kind of Network-Lite). Ultimately, its sense of satire isn’t even as sharp (or as black) as the opening scene of the Stepford Wives remake, which did more in five minutes of going for reality TV’s jugular than Book does in its entire running time. Instead of going for the neck, this movie merely nips at the heels.
Book establishes a typical romantic-comedy jealousy plot, in which Stacy (Murphy) becomes suspicious of her boyfriend (Ron Livington, The Cooler), and how past his romantic past actually is. So, taking a tip from her own idea of an expose on the modern version of the classic “little black book” — the palm pilot — Stacy opts to investigate his past and present. Her employment on a reality-based talk show helps her in her goal, as she can claim to be approaching the women she finds listed in the gadget in connection with work.
OK, fair enough as a premise, but the script wants to make this into more than just a genre offering. That’s admirable, but it results in a movie that’s less than a romantic comedy, and not much of anything else. Pointing out the basic immorality of programs like Jerry Springer isn’t exactly a fresh idea (though, admittedly, the script puts something of a fresh spin on it by having Stacy eaten alive by the very thing she’s involved in). The problem is that neither the writers nor director Nick Hurran know how to make the idea into “something more.” And sometimes, they seem to actually be working at odds with each other.
Hurran takes the approach of pure farce, keeping things moving at a feverish pace, and filling the background with bizarre comic detail. This often involves barnyard animals wandering past — presumably in connection with some peculiar fetish being explored on the show. It’s a passable touch about the parade of oddness inherent in such programming, but it’s only funny once, not three or four times — unless you just happen to think that sheep and goats are intrinsically hilarious. On the plus side, the film does offer nice roles for Kathy Bates (as the talk-show host) and Holly Hunter, who positively glows in a strangely complex part that causes her to constantly shift gears. Then too, it’s refreshing to find a movie like this that eschews a traditional happy ending. Unfortunately, such a wrap-up is at odds with the genre at hand, and the filmmakers know it, so they wander off into an ending that can only be described as “Carly Simon ex machina” — and a more outre notion I can scarcely imagine.
Little Black Book deserves points for its sheer oddness, making it perversely fascinating. But that doesn’t make it good.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke