At some point, people in relationships begin to worry about their partner’s past. Once you choose this path there is no turning back. The mind races and begins to play tricks on you. Does he still pine for someone? Do she still talk to an ex? Why did it all end the way it did? It is enough to drive you batty.
Nick Hurran’s black comedy Little Black Book (Columbia Pictures) stars Brittany Murphy as Stacy Holt, a likable associate producer for a television talk show who snoops into the private past of Derek, her commitment-wary boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston) with catastrophic results. At first her motives seem innocent, but her boyfriend’s unwillingness to discuss his past confounds her and the desire to understand the man she loves leads her down an emotional road of suspicion and paranoia.
With encouragement from her best friend and colleague Barb, (Holly Hunter) Stacy snoops into Derek’s past by accessing his Palm Pilot, computer and answering machine. Intrigued by what she discovers, Stacy’s curiosity and insecurity drive her to delve further. Using the TV show as cover, Stacy begins to meet and interact with Derek’s ex-loves. Eventually her fears intensify when it becomes apparent that not all of them are completely out of his life.
This is a breakout performance for the always-versatile Murphy. Her previous roles (8 Mile, Just Married) have underutilized her range and depth as an actress. With this role, she takes hold of the film and runs with it. Besides being likable on screen, Murphy gives her character a very real sense of vulnerability. Throughout every scene her bright-eyed exuberance lets you know that she is enjoying this role.
Ron Livingston (Office Space, The Cooler) is dead-on as Derek. One of his greatest strengths as an actor is his keen ability to play the likable, everyday guy. Throughout the film he gives away nothing and keeps the audience guessing, giving no inklings of deception, betrayal or dishonesty. Yet somehow he makes us wonder just who he really is.
Oscar winner Holly Hunter (Barb) plays the antagonist whose actions taint Stacy’s rationale, causing her to turn a blind eye to common sense, planting the initial seeds of deception in Stacy’s mind. Watching Hunter work is diabolically delightful. Her timing is methodical and precise and her comedic chops are surprising. She propels the action of the film.
Julianne Nicholson truly arrives in Little Black Book. Although her previous work (Curtain Call, One True Thing) has been enjoyable, she has never had a great deal of mainstream exposure. Her performance as Joyce will change that. She gives Joyce both tomboy coolness and a feminine intellectuality. She has taken what could easily have become a side character and breathed new life into the role.
Nick Hurran has done a terrific job directing Little Black Book. The actors appear so comfortable and relaxed on camera that they appear to be hardly working. He has skillfully managed to fit two Oscar winners (Kathy Bates and Holly Hunter) seamlessly into a cast that consists of solid up-and-coming performers. His direction is one reason why Little Black Book rises above the normal dreck associated with the romantic comedy genre.
The screenplay, penned by Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell, is fresh, light and fraught with enough tension and levity to keep audiences interested. Their script allows the actors to expand their rolls and develop their characters. The result is that in a relatively short amount of time we learn who these people are and become attached to them.
Little Black Book is the perfect date movie. It will undoubtedly cause hours of stimulating conversation and maybe even a squabble or two between the sexes. But that’s okay because this is a fun film with twists, turns, humor and generally believable characters. Little Black Book is also the perfect escape for those wanting a break from the superheroes, aliens, and rehashed remakes that live at the multiplexes near the end of the summer film season.