Levels of Betrayal in Little Black Book
As I struggle to use a microscopic screwdriver to dismember an old laptop of mine, the one I sleepily and clumsily spilled an entire cup of coffee on five years ago, I think of smaller and simpler technology. Specifically, I envision the scene where Stacy (played by Brittany Murphy) holds a frozen image of her boyfriend’s very serious ex Joyce, with her ass joyfully exposed in a thong, while sitting across from her in Little Black Book. Joyce tells Stacy to hold the power button down to restart it and voila. Turn it off and on again. Classic tried and true advice when technology misbehaves.
When I sat down to rewatch Little Black Book, perhaps because of the title, I could have sworn the movie was centered around a Blackberry. It’s not, by the way. The entire movie is driven by a Palm Pilot. Launched in 1997, essentially as a personal organizer and precursor to the smartphone, the Palm is a key character in the 2004 film. How could I forget Brittany Murphy’s adorable Jersey accent every time she says the word “palm?” I don’t know, but I did.
When Stacy’s boyfriend off-handedly reacts to an interview Stacy is watching on TV of a supermodel comically named Lulu Fritz who “barfed quietly” (this part, admittedly, did not age well). Derek says, “I knew it” and that he “heard her,” before he briskly changes the subject. The “I told you that, didn’t I?” that follows by a thinly veiled and, let’s face it, stereotypically male response and desire to not discuss past relationships is enough to make any partner a little uneasy. Stacy doesn’t press the issue; if she did, this would be an altogether different movie.
It doesn’t help that Stacy is incredibly easy to manipulate. Her coworkers, namely Holly Hunter’s Barb, encourages Stacy to “look under the hood before you purchase the car.” With social media, deep diving into someone’s public past is somewhat normalized. Googling someone before a date is not uncommon. However, Hunter offers a backbone and moral high ground to the eventual frenzied snooping that “omission is betrayal,” all while she is betraying Stacy.
It is worth mentioning that Little Black Book did not receive good reviews when it came out. The film has a rating of 22% on Rotten Tomatoes (37% from audience reviews) and the critics were scathing. Multiple critics despised Stacy for her morally questionable actions and so, discredited or hated the film. So why do I enjoy it?
In an interview, Brittany Murphy acknowledges that we’ve all snooped to a certain extent, whether looking in someone’s medicine cabinet or peeking at a Christmas present. I think that natural curiosity exists in all of us, if and how we act on it or not is a different story. After Stacy opens a box, hidden in a closet of an apartment she and her partner share, she cradles the Palm Pilot before taking the plunge:
“Seconds before opening the metallic case, I envisioned all the evil flowing into the world. I was Pandora… then I got over it.”
The driving force of Little Black Book is of course the namesake of the film but also the lack of communication in the main character’s relationship. It is never explicitly stated what Stacy goes looking for exactly, but I think simply put: any information at all. She wants to find out what she rather pointedly has not been told. We learn little about what Stacy has shared with her boyfriend, a missed opportunity perhaps, but do learn very early on about her past and future goals. She dreams of being Diane Sawyer, she idolizes Working Girl (another amazing film) and turns to Carly Simon when life is too much to handle. These details, along with my boundless love for Brittany Murphy, make me root for her, even if she is being deceitful.
This is where I think reviewers were a bit harsh in criticizing Stacy’s decisions. Is Little Black Book as ridiculous as the Kippie Kann show (an homage to talk shows like Sally and Jerry Springer) and where she works? Yes. Is that what makes it fun? I think so. For the same reason watching trashy TV scratches an itch and borders on voyeurism, watching Stacy abuse her power and resources to interview her boyfriend’s exes is deliciously duplicitous. In the end, she and Derek break up.
Stacy doesn’t find a romantic partner by the end of the film, but it seems likely that after landing her dream job she has grown and will have a more concrete sense of self for anyone who comes along in the future. Will she pretend to like hockey for her next boyfriend or be too scared to say she wants to meet his parents? It seems extremely unlikely. This is a movie about Stacy Holt, an imperfect character that makes big mistakes and finds her voice, for that reason alone I think it’s a film worth watching.
Originally published at https://www.romcomfest.com on September 3, 2020.