On paper, "Little Black Book" is just another high-tech updating of a tired romantic-comedy formula: Girl meets boy, girl doubts boy, girl pokes around in boy's Palm Pilot till she synchs up a mess of trouble. Take away the electronic product placement and what remains is your basic "I Love Lucy" episode, with (save us) Brittany Murphy as the screwball-adorable leading lady.
But hold the cellphone there, Ethel, because "Little Black Book" is actually an above-average farce, at least as featherweight chick flicks go.
First off, it's written more cleverly than you might expect, with occasionally funny one-liners ("It was a match made in Trenton") and the good sense not to take itself too seriously most of the time. Whenever screenwriters Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell let their heroine's narration get overly wide-eyed, they redeem themselves with a sharp bit of dialogue or delicious sendup that British director Nick Hurran has no qualms about playing to the hilt.
Their script centers on Stacy Holt (Murphy), a Diane Sawyer wannabe making her way up as a fledgling producer for Kippie Kann, hostess of a daytime talk show made in the image of Ricki Lake crossed with Leona Helmsley. Stacy lives with her boyfriend, Derek (Ron Livingston), but feels she doesn't really know him -- that is, she doesn't know why he won't introduce her to his parents or share details of his past relationship with a supermodel. Stacy feels bad, of course, so she consults her co-workers -- people who sit around and pitch ideas for shows like "Grandma's a hooker, so handle it" -- and heeds their advice to mimic reality television by snooping through Derek's personal belongings (the aforementioned Palm Pilot) until she finds herself face-to-face with a string of his ex-girlfriends.
Holly Hunter plays Barb, a salty senior producer who takes Stacy under her wing and leads her along this path of discovery. Barb's a hoot, and a huge asset here because she's smartly rendered as a jaded echo of the character Hunter played in "Broadcast News." In fact, a good part of what makes this movie likable is its snuggly familiarity: Beyond the upfront influence of "Working Girl," which allows Stacy to have a Carly Simon fixation that handily delivers the film's soundtrack ("We Have No Secrets," "You're So Vain"), there are shades of everything from "Send Me No Flowers" to "Soapdish."
Hurran ("Plots With a View") often errs on the side of cute, so thank goodness he has actors who can pull that off without annoying the heck out of us. The girl-next-door version of Murphy is surprisingly easy to take when she's not sharing the screen with Ashton Kutcher or Dakota Fanning, and Medford native Julianne Nicholson easily turns in the movie's most touching performance as an ex who still has feelings for Derek. Meanwhile, Kathy Bates, just the antidote cute needs, chews up the screen as the temperamental Kippie, and when it comes to mood swings, nobody does it better.
"Little Black Book" poses a few moral questions for the all-access era, but nothing here is going to make you think very hard. It's enough that the rapid-fire surprise final act ends the movie on a high note because, at least on paper, the odds weren't good.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.