When Nat King Cole sang “Unforgettable,” he meant the word as a compliment. Not so the Hollywood movie of the same name, in which two crazy exes refuse to be ignored as they attempt to ruin Rosario Dawson’s wedding — one, played by Katherine Heigl, so icily sociopathic that it’s too bad the borderline-campy movie wasn’t willing to go full tilt into B-movie “psycho-Barbie” territory.
A strange choice of directorial debut for longtime Tim Burton enabler Denise Di Novi (whose credits include producing “Heathers,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), “Unforgettable” is anything but what its title suggests, dissipating into vapor as soon as the credits roll. But it’s tawdry “Sleeping With the Enemy”-style fun while it lasts, boasting a better cast and splashier production values than the next closest Lifetime movie, while being so ridiculous at times that audiences can’t help but talk back to the screen.
Dawson plays Julia Banks, a big-city writer about to settle down with ideal beau David (Geoff Stults) in the tony small town where he raised his daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). No one mentions skin color or class, but Julia clearly feels out of place in this community, especially when mentally sizing herself up against Heigl’s character, seemingly perfect Stepford ex-wife Tessa Connover.
Casting means everything in this movie, and Di Novi’s against-type use of the popular “Grey’s Anatomy” star savvily exploits the actress’s prickly reputation within the industry. Say what you will about Heigl, but it’s a strange testament to her talent that once you’ve seen her as a villain — one who practically weaponizes her mannequin-worthy physique and wrinkle-free forehead — it will be hard to go back to picturing her as the innocuous girl next door.
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In Tessa, Heigl has taken a rather thinly written character and elevated her to someone you wouldn’t want to bump into at your child’s next PTA meeting. She’s not quite bunny-boiler imbalanced, though she’s doing her best to land Tessa in the pantheon of all-time scariest exes, intending her creepy, conniving stare to haunt beyond the end credits. When it comes to Tessa’s strategy for disrupting Julia’s life, however, the movie squanders her character’s deliciously bitchy potential.
Julia may have moved on romantically, but she’s still haunted by the trauma of her previous relationship to Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides), an aggressive bully who beat her so badly she had to get a restraining order. Now he’s dead, which we learn in the opening scene, set in a police interrogation room, where cops suspect Julia of having killed her ex. How else to explain the facts that she’d been sending him intimate photos via Facebook, a pair of her panties was found in his car, and her prints were all over the murder weapon? The answers are available in Julia’s version of events, which take us back to the days before she met Tessa — and before Michael re-entered her life.
“Unforgettable” is vaguely like last year’s “The Girl on the Train” (though nowhere near as garbled and ridiculous) in the way it half-heartedly teases the possibility that Julia could be guilty before revealing an explanation so elaborate and implausible we can’t help but roll our eyes. While Julia keeps it to herself that she’s been experiencing flashbacks to past beatings, Tessa is unsettlingly intuitive in reading her new foe and sees a sadistic opportunity in Julia’s trauma.
Since Julia doesn’t use Facebook (making her perhaps the only contemporary dot-com writer without a social-media presence), Tessa steps in and creates a profile, using it to contact Julia’s abusive ex. She steals Julia’s phone and stockpiles sexy photos, which she further uses to rile him up, then breaks into the house to collect her intimate belongings, including lingerie and the family-heirloom engagement ring David gave Julia — which Tessa believes she deserves.
If this were the 18th century, Tessa would be a witch, tossing Julia’s possessions into her cauldron while she whips up a spell, but in this day and age, she’s the world’s scariest soccer mom, exerting her controlling tendencies on David’s young daughter, Lily, who has the misfortune to be caught between the two women in her daddy’s life. Julia is worried that Lily won’t accept her, and Tessa does her best to ensure it, crashing family dinners and offering expensive perks — such as horseback-riding lessons — with which Julia can’t compete.
Such competition is a genuine concern for many modern relationships, and one that Di Novi and screenwriter Christina Hodson have woven throughout the film, which may as well be the contemporary equivalent of a classic Hollywood “women’s picture,” considering the way it shrewdly exploits certain feminine anxieties. The way Di Novi anticipates what her audience wants — especially in the nonverbal communication between its two rivals — shows an intelligence that’s nevertheless undercut by the film’s approach to Julia’s history of abuse.
Tessa’s the type who can’t seem to distinguish between love and possessiveness, which is clear from the obsessive-compulsive way she brushes her daughter’s hair (evidently she gets it from her mother, played by Cheryl Ladd with a concentrated control-freak aura that nearly makes Tessa into a sympathetic character). But what does Tessa hope to achieve by her scheme? It’s all rather convoluted and can’t possibly go as planned, since it hinges on the wild card of introducing Julia’s unstable violent ex-boyfriend into the mix.
Basically, what we’re really waiting for is the moment in which the two women throw down in what could have been the catfight of the century, though Di Novi stops just short of crossing the line to truly twisted territory. While that might be adequate for the casual megaplex crowd, it prevents “Unforgettable” from delivering the kind of transgressive oh-no-she-didn’t scene (à la “Gone Girl’s” throat-slitting) that would have made this a thriller to remember.