For a movie that includes a scene where an icy perfectionist sexts and masturbates with her ex-husband’s new fiancée’s former domestic abuser (whew!), Unforgettable is unfortunately way too tame. There are two intriguing ways to go with this type of material, darkly erotic or over-the-top trashy; Unforgettable is surprisingly vanilla. Which is too bad because there are some intriguing pieces here.
For starters, Unforgettable is one of only seven films that a major movie studio (and not one of its indie subsidiaries) tapped a female director for release in 2017. It actually marks the directorial debut of a longtime successful movie producer, Denise Di Novi (her producing resume includes Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Crazy, Stupid, Love and many more). And the two female leads are appealing for different reasons. One, any movie with Rosario Dawson as the lead is doing something right on paper because Dawson should’ve been receiving leading roles for a decade now. She’s truly one of the most criminally underused actresses today. And two, Katherine Heigl is attempting to get out of romantic comedy jail by playing a country club psycho cipher. The set-up for a great exploitation melodrama is richened by this combo.
Unforgettable is a tale of two women that becomes deadly. One, Tessa (Heigl), has been chasing perfection, the other, Julia (Dawson), is escaping a previous abusive nightmare. What they have in common is a man. David Connover (Geoff Stults), isn’t just two consonants from being attacked by a Terminator, he’s also a former Wall Street stud who left everything to become a SoCal artisan brewer and he’s both the ex-husband of Tessa/father of Tessa’s daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) and the fiancé of new-to-Malibu Julia. So he’s the knight who’s saving a woman with a secret and the man who’s destroying a secretly crazy woman’s attempt at perfection and familial reconciliation.
As Tessa hopes to remove Julia from the equation there are a few psychologically intriguing threads that Unforgettable presents but never fully delves into. For starters, Tessa is introduced as a woman who is using her child as a pawn in her deception, making Julia to feel like an unfit stepmother using only the most organic moments, such as when Lily pushes around the food that Julia cooks, or how imperfect Lily’s hair is when she returns from Julia’s care. Tessa’s mother, the beloved grandmother to Lily—decked in pearls and played by Cheryl Ladd as red flag mother that’d have her own separate thick file in Tessa’s psychological profile—also frequents Tessa’s home to serve as the source of Tessa’s discipline and manipulation (when her daughter was feeling a breakup coming on in New York, her mother instructed her to get pregnant, so she’d stay with David). It always comes back to the mother and the mother is frequently looming above any movie psycho-bitch to provide a little sympathy.
Though that mothering note has been played many times, Unforgettable has a despicable narrative device that’s wholly original—and could’ve been frightfully memorable. After stealing Julia’s thunder by buying a white gown that Julia had considered at a local boutique shop to wear to David’s brewery party, Tessa steals the microphone to give a speech about how her sacrifice in moving their family back to California helped make this possible. She glows in the moment but it’s quickly scuttled when Tessa sees a text on Julia’s phone about Julia’s future wedding dress. Tessa steals her phone to crack into her messages and ends up stealing her identity because she discovers that Julia has an expired restraining order against her ex-boyfriend for domestic abuse. Using some (made up?) software that makes it so that she can text the former abusive boyfriend from her computer without Julia receiving receipts of the texts once the phone is back in her possession, Tessa begins sending “I can’t stop thinking of you” texts as Julia to the recently released from jail ex-lover. Things escalate quickly and eventually Tessa is using the sexy photos on Julia’s phone (Julia and David were in a long-distance relationship during their courtship) followed by sending some of her panties to masturbate to.
Tessa is setting up an invite to Julia’s home to create a violent situation where he thinks he’s going to get fucked but Julia is unaware of their “communication” and thus will be defensive, perhaps even self-defensive to one of their deaths. Meanwhile, Tessa is also kinda aroused by the whole thing. These thriller scenes aren’t aided by the fact that Unforgettable has no discernible visual palette. Shadows and light are never exploited and neither is body language or body curvatures—even during rainy night masturbation sessions with a potential killer.
Psychologically, there’s something interesting in a woman manipulating a man with an abusive history to injure another woman, just to get what she wants for herself. Additionally, there’s something trashy about the arousal that would come from that. But unfortunately, Unforgettable doesn’t explore these deplorable steps nor does it ramp up the icky eroticism. The effed-up scenarios are right there to be exploited, but instead they register with about as much depth as a shrug emoji.
A recurring issue in Unforgettable is that it’s so gun shy. It feels the tawdry rim but it never gets in there. Tessa uses a man for sex in her car after she learns of David and Julia’s engagement, but it’s rushed and unsexy and un-predatory. Julia is jealous of hearing about David’s “insatiable” and “exhausting” past of desiring a new position every night from his ex because that’s not her experience, so she forces a bathroom tryst in which head placement kinda connotes cunnilingus but it isn’t even in the right area for it to be believable. Similarly, Tessa’s sudden arousal of texting with a domestic abuser who’s hot to trot for his past and future victim is a one and done manipulation of the moment that could’ve been so much more.
Unforgettable had the potential to be an old-fashioned erotic thriller. It might be easy to dismiss this whole thing as “forgettable” but Heigl and Dawson give it their all. They’re actually perfect for this genre—Heigl as a calculated wacko who cultivates a perfect surface and Dawson as the woman you root for—but they’re failed by the over-plotted script that’s too interested in surface jolts and doesn’t let any of the trashy whims register by uncomfortably lingering on them. If Heigl is game to get ickier than the surface tawdriness that’s presented here, we should be so lucky if she continues in the genre. There are some ideas that are far more interesting than what the final product affords her character. What’s maddening is that these ideas are present but not fully presented.
Ultimately, Unforgettable settles on being a kitschy motherhood tale. And it might find a so-bad-its-good audience (a running audience commentary/cackling is key to some of the enjoyment here) due to the grandmother prominence and the fact that for a movie called Unforgettable, we don’t really know who’s unforgettable. Is it simple-as-a-soap-opera David? If so, that never registers because he truly is forgettable; his best quality is that he stands up straight. If anyone registers as unforgettable, it’s Julia’s abusive ex-boyfriend who makes her wake up in cold sweats, who she sees in the shadows, and whom the movie totally drops the ball on in the narrative. Exploiting how and why Tessa brings him into their Malibu enclave—and why that arouses her—could’ve made this movie memorable.
Unforgettable opens April 21