Unforgettable is a real “bad news/bad news” proposition. The bad news is: Unforgettable is not a good movie. And the bad news also is: Unforgettable is not good trash. The film momentarily embraces a measurable level of lunacy near the end, and Katherine Heigl’s attempt at remolding herself into an erotic thriller femme fatale is admirable. Unfortunately, it’s directed (by longtime producer, Denise De Novi, making her feature debut) with a pedestrian disregard for anything resembling personal vision. There’s a flat Movie of the Week quality to the way each scene is staged, even when the chaste sex acts depicted start to slightly steam up the frame. It’s a real shame, because one can’t help but wonder what Unforgettable would look like were it helmed by an Adrian Lyne or Paul Verhoeven, as there’s certainly room with this script to produce a slice of subversive softcore smut.
What’s most frustrating about Unforgettable is an element that’s truly no fault of its own. The story structure of Christina Hodson and David Johnson’s screenplay closely mirrors that of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Neither production could’ve known this when they rolled film and chose release dates so close to each other, but we’re here now and there’s nothing we can about that. Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) is a woman of color entering the white suburban domain of her future fiancée, David (Geoff Stults). Only she’s not just going to meet the family for the first time, she’s practically inheriting a daughter (Isabella Kai Rice), which means the kid’s bitter mother comes along with her. David’s ex-wife is Tessa (Heigl), a preening, perfectly manicured ice queen who is cordial, but makes it clear who’s boss. Everybody in this small California town knows Tessa, as she and David were always the hot item at any social function. So now everyone knows Julia, the big city book editor he’s decided to replace the former princess with. To make matters worse, Tessa’s got quite the problem letting go. It’s a setup rife for social commentary, as all these white eyes are now trained on Julia’s dark skin as the jilted prom queen plots against this nefarious Other.
The problem is, Julia’s race is never commented upon by anyone in her new borough, and her best friend back home (her “Rod”, if we’re going to continue down this comparative path), is a chirpy hipster white girl (Whitney Cummings – yeah, that one) who merely warns her to “watch out for herself”. The door’s wide pen for a gender flipped companion piece to Peele’s transgressive horror megahit, but instead we’re treated to some tense yet unremarkable shenanigans as Tessa feels David’s new flame closing in on her territory. The mother shows up unannounced at dinner when David isn’t home, and practically hisses “you don’t have anything organic, do you?” while going through Julia’s cabinets. Upsetting crank phone calls start pouring in, and Julia’s phone mysteriously disappears. Could it be her own nightmare ex (Simon Kassianides)? That restraining order Julia took out ages ago recently expired, and now she can’t quit thinking back to when he last hit her. That’d be the easy answer, but Tessa just keeps coming on so strong.
Heigl does her damndest to try and cement a new erotic thriller icon, hovering somewhere between Rebecca De Mornay’s lethal caretaker in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Glenn Close’s jilted one night stand from Fatal Attraction. In fact, Cheryl Ladd’s casting as Tessa’s hyper-critical stage mom announces De Novi’s familiarity with the subgenre sandbox she’s playing in, as Unforgettable is no doubt an R-rated descendant of the TV Thriller Queen’s more lurid output. Trash aficionados instantly recognize the pulp bloodline that bore Heigl’s devoted backstabber, as she scans Julia’s phone for any sort of ammunition she can use against her replacement. Shedding the rom-com persona completely, Heigl does wonders with stillness, staring holes through her new adversary while sporting a plastic mask of geniality at all times. By the time she’s flying across the room with a knife in her hand, ready to cut the heart from this inferior woman’s chest, Heigl’s emitting Margaret White levels of frightening histrionics. Most of Unforgettable may be unremarkable, but it’s not for a lack of trying from this rebounding star. Her career needs a boost, and she clearly knows it.
Almost intriguing is the sexual gamesmanship these women use against one another, as Tessa plants a seed over peace treaty margaritas that she and David’s bond was based almost entirely around the “physical component”. This obvious lie leads to the movie’s hilarious central sexual set piece, as Julia goes HAM and sucks David off at a work function, while the movie cross-cuts to Tessa playing dirty DJ with her privates as she sends lascivious messages to the woman’s abusive ex via Facebook. Unforgettable is clearly trying to package some statement regarding the tricks rivals play when relationships are threatened, packing its odd dissection inside of an erotic thriller construct. What that thesis is never comes across, as the whole moment is too prudish to be a delve into mutual debasement, and again plays like a giggly stab at mall crowd taboo.
Let’s be frank: Rosario Dawson is better than this movie, and the fact that its creators seemingly never considered race when applying her talents to its story is somewhat baffling. When taken on its own terms, Unforgettable is certainly watchable – VOD-ready Sunday night fare that’ll do when nothing else on your multiple streaming platforms is catching your eye and you just want to zone out for 100 minutes. But it’s hard not to be disappointed by the fact that this is a project directed by a woman, co-written by a woman, and yet doesn’t own a POV beyond desiring to deliver a basic bitch diversion. Had it done so, the more ridiculous moments – like when Julia discovers her company has a former hacker on the payroll who uncovers Tessa’s sealed criminal background with a few clicks – would work in service of delivering some sort of distinct worldview. Instead, Unforgettable feels like a forgotten Blockbuster relic, never engaging the viewer beyond a few eyerolls and some awkward shifting in their seat before the tape’s ejected and returned, destined to pass through a few more members’’ hands before ending up in the $5 used bin for eternity.