Editor’s Note: Unforgettable opens in wide theatrical release today, April 21, 2017.
We can call off the search party for Katherine Heigl’s career (We found Zach Braff’s just two weeks ago, directing the already forgotten Going in Style remake). A solid start on TV (Grey’s Anatomy), a big box-office win (Knocked Up), followed by a series of increasingly dire, desperate rom-coms and two back-to-back failed TV series (Doubt, State of Affairs) have led inevitably to Unforgettable, a predictably clichéd, borderline camp, throwback “erotic thriller” (minus the eroticism or the thrills) with Heigl relegated to second lead, playing an ultra-entitled, egocentric, blink-averse sociopath driven by maternal and non-maternal urges to get her perfect life back regardless of the cost to her dignity or the dignity of the actress playing her. To Heigl’s credit, she gives her absolute all as the stiff-backed, upper class, blonde, hair-obsessed villainess, a caricature of white privilege and heteronormative monogamy. Heigl’s committed performance, however, can’t salvage an otherwise regressive, retrograde, ultimately risible thriller.
Rather than try to play the material straight or semi-straight, Di Novi probably should have gone full camp with Unforgettable. Contrary to the title, it might have saved an otherwise forgettable, disposable stab at reviving a sub-genre that should have been left for dead long ago.
Heigl’s character, Tessa Connover, doesn’t make her entrance right away. She’s held back for a seemingly innocent reveal: The first super-tense, arctic cold meet-and-greet between Tessa and Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), the new woman in her ex’s life. That ex, David (Geoff Stults), tall, bland, and handsome, becomes the figurative and literal battleground for the two women. Tessa wants David back, but Julia’s stepped in to take the role of future wife and potential stepmother to Tessa and David’s daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). At first, Lily resists Julia’s entry into her shared life with her father, but when she relents and warms up to Julia, Tessa takes it upon herself to ruin David and Julia’s relationship through a combination of stalking (online and off, including a super-convenient hack of Julia’s phone, complete with highly personal information, like Julia’s birth certificate and a suddenly relevant court order) and gaslighting (sneaking into their home, stealing jewelry, snatching her daughter from a public park while under Julia’s care). Tessa’s nothing if not diabolical.
Katherine Heigl’s committed performance, however, can’t salvage an otherwise regressive, retrograde, ultimately risible thriller.
She almost succeeds too, if mostly because David proves himself a remarkably paradoxical character: He sees Tessa as the narcissistic manipulator that she is, but finds it difficult to see Julia’s ever growing panic and desperation at Tessa’s behavior. It doesn’t help that Julia – escaping San Francisco in part due to a failed, violent relationship – initially refuses to share details about her abusive past with David (she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, she doesn’t want to be pitied apparently), but the unoriginal, derivative plot depends on David giving Tessa the benefit of the doubt until the final moments of Unforgettable. It doesn’t help that Unforgettable’s longtime Hollywood producer turned first-time director, Denise Di Novi, and her screenwriting team, David Leslie Johnson and Christine Hodson, give David a generic background as a onetime banker turned micro-brewer and all-around good, if dim, guy.
That David asks Julia to upend her professional and personal life and relocate to SoCal to join him – with all of the disorientation, not to mention likely conflict with Tessa, that will result – says less less about David as a character and more about Di Novi and her writing team’s inability to write a credible male character. Then again, that’s probably reading too much – hoping too much – out of a film designed to update and modernize the erotic thriller for a supposedly more enlightened century. Adding in Julia’s past as the victim of domestic abuse and Tessa’s diabolical plan to leverage social media (albeit in a detached-from-the-real-world setting) to wreak havoc on Julia’s life does little to elevate a narrative, not to mention the themes surrounding that narrative, that was outdated and antiquated two decades ago. To Di Novi’s credit, flipping the proverbial script and turning the biological mother into the villain and a stepmother-to-be into the heroine count as a somewhat new and novel spin on a tired, stale sub-genre. Di Novi also deserves props for turning Heigl’s Tessa into an Ivanka Trump clone and casting Dawson in an interracial romance where race seemingly doesn’t matter (a fantasy certainly, but a fantasy worth embracing nonetheless). Ultimately, however, Unforgettable fails not because it doesn’t take itself seriously, but because it does. Rather than try to play the material straight or semi-straight, Di Novi probably should have gone full camp with Unforgettable. Contrary to the title, it might have saved an otherwise forgettable, disposable stab at reviving a sub-genre that should have been left for dead long ago.
Director Denise Di Novi's thriller Unforgettable fails because it tries to play the outdated material straight, resulting in a forgettable, disposable stab at reviving a sub-genre that should have been left for dead long ago.