There’s a fine art to crafting a riveting, compelling tale about anger, revenge and obsession. Producer-turned-director Denise Di Novi’s UNFORGETTABLE never lets you forget that, mainly because it can’t manage to sharpen its dull edge to slice through the boredom. The wannabe 90’s throwback thriller is too dry, awkward and serious for its own good, leading those who are hoping to relish any potential subversive camp to throw their hands in the air, disappointingly declaring, “I can’t.”
Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) thinks she’s got her dream life ahead of her now that she’s put the pain from an abusive ex-boyfriend (Simon Kassianides) in her rear-view mirror. Having recently quit her job as a top editor at a Bay Area publishing dot com, she’s moving in with her handsome fiancée, David Connover (Geoff Stults), in his big family home in picturesque Pasadena. But there was another Mrs. Connover that came before her – and she is none too thrilled about Julia moving in on her turf. That scorned ex is Tessa (Katherine Heigl), who wears sheath dresses like they’re battle armor and makes Gwyneth Paltrow look like a slacker. She’s the picture of perfection, but also cold, calculating and competitive. And thanks in part to Tessa’s mind games, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), her young daughter with David, is also taking a while to warm up to Julia. However, once Tessa gets wind of the engagement, it sends her over the edge, seething in anger and resentment towards Julia. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – or goes so the clichéd, sexist phrase that is this film’s touchstone.
If it’s not the salt-and-pepper shaker chess board that completely upstages the actors in one ridiculously inane argument sequence, there’s a million other things to jettison you out of the picture.
Unfortunately, the message of this pseudo-feminist cautionary tale plays far differently in the execution. Christina Hodson’s script time and again posits a dangerous rhetoric when it comes to gender politics. Women are all snippy, gossips or inherently insane. If it’s not enough to see the two lead female characters constantly pitted against each other, spewing vitriol silently or aloud, all the other female characters – outside of one compassionate shop girl – are also horribly mean to each other. David’s female work friends gossip about Tessa’s horribleness on a few occasions. Lovey’s (Cheryl Ladd) passive-aggressive swipes towards her daughter Tessa and granddaughter Lily are cruel. At a work dinner, an overly paranoid Julia wildly imagines that a female investor flirting with David is out to steal her man. Her solution? Go screw him in the bathroom to make it stop instead of dealing with that trust issue that comes out of nowhere. Julia’s best friend Ali (Whitney Cummings) travels to pore over papers about Tessa’s past exploits so they can have some sort of blackmail material on her.
The men are treated even worse: The detective (played by Robert Wisdom) interrogating Julia condescendingly lays out the facts, questioning, “do you know what this sounds like?!” He essentially answered his own question. David is portrayed as a spineless, guileless dummy, who later values the words of both his vindictive ex-wife and the lousy detective over the sacrosanct word of his seemingly trustworthy fiancée. Though we never see him, the screenwriter also throws Tessa’s father under the bus.
You may be tempted to compare UNFORGETTABLE to THE TEMP, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, OBSESSED or THE ROOMMATE. Please don’t. It’s not even on par with those.
What makes this bad – and not even in a “so bad, it’s good”/ guilty pleasure kind of way – is that there’s nothing gripping or convincing driving Tessa’s revenge, which is given away in the first act (so it’s on the table to discuss here). In addition to the poor gender representations, the escalating situational shenanigans are stilted, predictable and boring. Take THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and FATAL ATTRACTION, for example. We’re caught in a push-pull with each of the ladies’ sides. We understand why Rebecca De Mornay’s character (who lost her husband and child) and Glenn Close’s character (who felt incredibly disrespected and undignified by a lover) go over the edge. During HAND, De Mornay’s character roughs up a bully and breastfeeds another woman’s baby. During FATAL, Close’s character boils a bunny. That was, and still is, shocking stuff. We want to see good triumph over evil, but we also empathize with their drive to exact wicked, delicious vengeance. In UNFORGETTABLE, a wealthy, sad divorcee who caused her own divorce isn’t enough of an engine. To make Tessa more interesting (prior to the third act climax, which is mind-numbingly stupid and befuddling to say the least), they have her masturbate to an online chat, vape and rage f*ck a waiter. Not very sensational, right? Yet the filmmakers treat it as outlandish behavior, when really it should just be Tessa getting her groove back. There’s even a hamster in this (an obvious nod to FATAL’s bunny), but nope. That ‘yil guy remains alive.
Unlike the aforementioned films, here, the villain empathy card is played at wrong place – past the point of no return. Up until that point, it had been building to a fairly solid first act crescendo. Di Novi shows Tessa silently debating whether or not to metaphorically pull the trigger, before ultimately acting upon her jealousy. And yet, the scene showing greater insight into what makes Tessa tick happens after her unsympathetic action. At that point, we’re already hating her, so that sequence is null and void.
I’m not sure what about this script attracted Di Novi to want make the move to directing, let alone directing this. Was it that it was going into production and she’d rather see a capable woman handle the material rather than a man who might be exploitative? Possibly. That said, Rob Cohen (THE BOY NEXT DOOR) could’ve done wonders with this material – like given it a pulse and represented the female gaze just as hard, if not more. However, as it is, Di Novi adds a few distinctly female flourishes like making sure Julia never plays the stereotypical “victim.” She confronts impending danger head-on. Plus, sex scenes are soft, but never salacious.
By some sort of weird default, UNFORGETTABLE’s title winds up being ironic. I only wish I could forget what I saw.
UNFORGETTABLE opens on April 21.