Little Black Book

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A line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” prefaces “Little Black Book”: “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” Properly, it’s “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” but when a film starring Brittany Murphy bothers quoting Shakespeare at all, we’re not going to quibble. The viewer soon forgets the ominous-sounding quote even appeared, so light-hearted and sunny is the film that follows it. But surely it was there for a reason, and that reason brings us to why this is a most surprising and unusual film.

It is about Stacy Holt (Brittany Murphy), who has wanted to be a TV newswoman since childhood and has now become an associate producer — a job that is not nearly as important as it sounds; many shows have a dozen of them — for a Jerry Springer-ish daytime talk show called “Kippie Kann Do!,” starring Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates). Her mentor, a fellow producer named Barb (Holly Hunter), shows her the ropes while Kippie herself storms around the set, terrorizing staffers and only barely being contained by executive producer Carl (Stephen Tobolowsky).

Stacy, meanwhile, is dating Mr. Perfect, a hockey talent scout named Derek (Ron Livingston) who is out of town for a few days on assignment. While he’s gone, Barb plants a seed of doubt in Stacy’s mind: Why didn’t his past relationships work? Did he cheat? The only way to find out — suggested by another staffer as a Kippie Kann show topic — is to find his little black book (in the form of a PDA, these days), contact the ex-girlfriends, and drill them for information.

Using her connection with the Kippie show as an excuse and not revealing her true identity as Derek’s current squeeze, Stacy does indeed contact three former girlfriends — a model (Josie Maran), a gynecologist (Rashida Jones), and a chef (Julianne Nicholson). She tells them each that they’re sought as guests for the show, hence the need for pre-interviews, in which past relationships just happen to be casually discussed.

In the process of all this, Stacy discovers little lies Derek has told about his past. Not huge ones, but minor ones, and enough of them to concern her. Of course, she has fabricated her own web of lies in order to learn about Derek’s, and that fact is not lost on Stacy, who is essentially a good person. The question is whether she’ll get away with it.

Directed by little-known Nick Hurran and written by Elisa Bell (“Sleepover”) and Melissa Carter, most of the film feels light and airy — not funny, per se, but with a tone of joviality about it. Much of it is predictable: Of course Stacy will accidentally become friends with one of the women she’s gathering information from, and of course Kippie Kann will do one show live, rather than pre-taped, so that things can unravel during it and go out over the air immediately. (That is the only reason TV people in the movies ever do live shows.) It is not compelling as a drama, nor funny as a comedy. It feels like a hopeless film.

But then some things happen. There are plot twists and characters twists that would constitute “spoilers” if I told them to you, but they comprise the film’s worthwhileness. The climax is genuinely unexpected, and things don’t turn out the way the first two acts lead you to assume they will.

Such an abrupt change in tone is dangerous because it puts the film at risk of derailing altogether, but I think it works here. Holly Hunter is perfect as a sassy career woman, and Brittany Murphy — so talented and likable, yet often so bad at choosing which films to do — truly shines as Stacy. Her winning smile and accessible personality lend the film much charm, and help carry it over its rough patches.

I hesitate to call it a “good” movie, because much of it is useless. But overall, it feels just quirky and interesting enough to recommend it, albeit lukewarmly.

B- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity, a little vulgarity.)

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