- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Five minutes into “Little Black Book” even the least savvy audience can predict the following:[R] The Carly Simon-obsessed lead character Stacy (Brittany Murphy) will bump into her favorite crooner.

The dog owned by Miss Murphy’s boyfriend will be used ad nauseam for cutesy reaction shots.

The dating maxim “less history, more mystery” will never seem wiser than it does by film’s end.

What we can’t foresee is an enlightened third-act wrinkle that steers this otherwise forgettable film into uncharted territory.

Too bad that by that point we don’t give a hoot about Miss Murphy’s character.

The “Uptown Girls” actress, she of the raccoon eyes and fidgety frame, is Stacy, an associate producer for talk show host Kippie Kann (a sleepwalking Kathy Bates). Stacy is blissfully in love with Derek (Ron Livingston), a New Jersey Devils scout who seems like the man of her dreams.

Her nightmare begins when Derek innocently mentions he once dated a supermodel. Stacy becomes obsessed with the disclosure: Why had he never mentioned it before? What else about his romantic past doesn’t she know — but should?

Before you can say 21st-century plot device, Stacy is digging through Derek’s Palm Pilot, which apparently contains more damning information than an army of detectives could dig up.

Egged on by her aggressively juvenile colleague (Holly Hunter, who radiates even during the obligatory “I am woman, hear me roar” dance sequence), Stacy uses her TV clout to meet and grill Derek’s ex-girlfriends.

Today’s romantic comedies too frequently depend on unlikable leads whom we’re asked to cheer on nonetheless. Miss Murphy’s manipulative Stacy never wins us over. Her acting is all surface tics, with no room for complexities.

Never is that more obvious than when Derek’s ex, Joyce, is on-screen. Relative newcomer Julianne Nicholson benefits from taking on the film’s sole redeemable role, but it’s her grace and confidence that sets her apart. She doesn’t scream, “Like me,” from every pore as Miss Murphy does.

Much of “Book” details the bitter infighting that makes “The Kippie Kann Show” click, material that now — several years past Jerry Springer’s heyday — seems dated.

The film was written by a pair of women, yet rarely does a film boast a less empowered female lead.

Stacy can’t function without belting out Miss Simon’s songs, stoops to dirty tricks when she should simply confront her beau about his past like an adult, and smashes his answering machine with a hockey stick when she can’t find the right button to push.

She could set the women’s movement back decades.

Logic isn’t even a supporting character in “Little Black Book,” which at least has the dignity not to patch together a disgustingly sappy denouement. We’re left with a bittersweet coda, which alone makes this “Book” a notch above the worst of its genre.

**

WHAT:”Little Black Book”

RATING:PG-13 (sexual situations, coarse language)

CREDITS:Directed by Nick Hurran. Written by Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell.

RUNNING TIME:105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com/movies/littleblackbook/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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