Is it possible to make a romantic comedy in which every single character is despicable -- we're talking bereft of even a shred of redeeming value -- and still charm audiences?
Having sat through "Little Black Book," the answer is a weary, disgruntled no.
Let us begin with our heroine, Stacy Holt (Brittany Murphy), who digs through her boyfriend's Palm Pilot and personal belongings when she begins to suspect he isn't being truthful about his exes. (Murphy plays the character in the shrill, self-conscious fashion that has become her unfortunate acting trademark in the past few years, following "Uptown Girls," "Just Married" and "Spun.")
But wait -- let's stop and take a moment to consider what an insanely flawed premise this is. Stacy is snooping on her boyfriend, Derek (Ron Livingston), a scout for the New Jersey Devils hockey team, because he's reluctant to discuss his past relationships. She could have talked with him about her insecurities but instead chooses to violate his privacy.
And we're supposed to feel sympathy for this person?
Fifty years ago on "I Love Lucy," when Lucy pulled this kind of stunt with trusty Ethel by her side, it was funny because Lucille Ball was funny; she made the character's doubts and vulnerabilities endearing. Here, it plays like psycho girlfriend behavior.
Anyway, Stacy worships Diane Sawyer and aspires to work with the veteran newswoman but settles for a job as an assistant producer for aging daytime talk show host Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates), who seems to be the Ricki Lake of Trenton, N.J. Program topics frequently include midgets and strippers, because screenwriters Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell seem to think that satirizing lowest-common-denominator television is revelatory.
Everyone involved with the show is either a sycophant, a backstabber or both. Fellow producer Barb (Holly Hunter) becomes Stacy's friend, but she encourages Stacy to contact Derek's exes -- based on the information she obtained from his Palm Pilot -- under the guise of inviting them onto the Kippie Kann show as guests.
She meets bulimic supermodel Lulu (Josie Maran), self-absorbed gynecologist Rachel (Rashida Jones) and Joyce (Julianne Nicholson), an up-and-coming chef whom Stacy actually befriends. (Casting Nicholson is one of the film's few saving graces -- with her big, green eyes and freckled face, she has a fresh sweetness notably missing elsewhere.)
At the high point of Stacy's frantic manipulations -- or low point, depending on your perspective -- she smashes Derek's answering machine with a hockey stick to keep him from calling in to check his messages. Then she and Barb dance around the living room to "Let the River Run" by Carly Simon -- whom Stacy also worships -- in one of the many moments in which director Nick Hurran strains to depict the exhilaration of female empowerment.
Stacy consoles herself with Simon's songs and often sings along, which includes a rendition of "Nobody Does It Better" while lying on her back on the bathroom floor. And she does it well, though her musical interludes are so frequent and lengthy, they seem like a shameless plug for Murphy's side career as a singer.
You will see the movie's twist coming from a mile away. Its results are protracted, and they only make everyone seem more unappealing. After playing a TV producer of great integrity in "Broadcast News" 17 years ago, Hunter now plays a TV producer who will betray others to get ahead -- and this is supposed to represent the evolution of strong women in the industry?
It is possible to create comedies and dramas in which nearly every character seems irreparably flawed; "Arrested Development" and "The Shield" come to mind, and they're two of the best shows on television. But these people are composed of complexities -- glimmers of likeability and justifiable motivations -- that make you want to watch them and root for them, even when they're misbehaving.
There's no such luck when searching the pages of "Little Black Book."