Halfway through the trailer for Unforgettable, a warning voice began yelling in my ear: Oh no... it can’t be... SOMEONE WENT AND BUDGETED ANOTHER KATHERINE HEIGL PICTURE!
It’s been two years since Heigl’s appeared in a movie. Jenny’s Wedding was enough to drive any theater patron to extremes of avoidance going forward. Add to that a long reputation as being difficult to work with, and it’s surprising that the actress hasn’t been permanently sentenced to sitcom hell. But while Unforgettable hardly lives up to its titular descriptive, it does at least serve notice that Heigl should have gone dark a lot sooner. The performance is easily her finest movie work to date.
Confession is good for the soul, so let me make one here: I have willingly submitted to all but one of Heigl’s post-Knocked Up features (did Jackie & Ryan ever play San Diego?) as well as two of her early, funny pictures (The Ringer and Valentine). For me, the actress has achieved full-out guilty pleasure status.
Viewers became familiar with Heigl on the network drama Grey’s Anatomy. She clearly made a big enough impression on someone to make the giant leap from network star to big screen icon. Initially, Heigl’s beauty was her business card — she had the Ivanka Trump look established long before it became fashionable — but it was the beastly ineptitude at selecting projects (27 Dresses, Life as We Know It, etc.) that kept me coming back for more.
Nothing thrills me quite like watching a performer with a rotten reputation trying vainly to establish a goody-goody screen persona that no one appears to be buying. To date, the most notable action Heigl’s taken was slamming Knocked Up writer-director Judd Apatow for being sexist. Didn’t she read the script before agreeing to co-star?
Heigl tried her hand at action (Killers, One for the Money), but all roads led back to romantic comedies. Other than the undiscovered Jackie & Ryan, Unforgettable is her only lead role in a drama.
We’ve all seen, or are at least familiar with, domestic thrillers of this sort, the countless ways in which a spurned lover, stalker, and/or all-around obsessive personality turns up the heat on their successor. Male stalkers tend to run along the lines of nebbish Robin Williams in One-Hour Photo. The female variation, physically the type to put the hot in psychotic, exists solely to enact revenge on her blameless replacement lover. When done well, the end result looks something like Play Misty For Me, The Gift, or Unlawful Entry. On the other side there’s Fatal Attraction, Swimfan, or The Boy Next Door.
Heigl stars as walking ice sculpture and mother of one, Tessa Connover. Her headdress, a sleek waterfall of buttercream icing, tops what Clifford Odets once referred to as a “cookie filled with arsenic.” Tessa sweats greenbacks; if you had her money you’d throw yours away.
Tessa’s mother (Cheryl Ladd) is incapable of letting her adult daughter dine in peace, a trait that’s been handed down to granddaughter Lily (Isabella Rice). Mother Connover advised Tessa early on that the best way to cement a marriage was to have a baby tout de suite. She obliged, and Lily is the only object, the one sliver of hope that keeps her in contact with ex-husband David (Geoff Stults). David quit Merrill Lynch to become a brewer, and it was there that he met Tessa’s replacement Julia (Rosario Dawson).
This is the first feature as director for Denise Di Novi, better known as the producer of several early Tim Burton pictures (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) in addition to Heathers, Original Sin, Catwoman, and many more. It’s clear that Burton’s scattergun approach to filmmaking didn’t come from Di Novi; up until the very end, logic had a tendency of reigning supreme in Unforgettable. The script by first-timer Christina Hodson and Orphan scribe David Leslie Johnson is as compelling to watch as it would be easy to mimic. Tessa’s methodical approach to intimidation begins with hangup calls (the staple of touchtone terrorism), followed by a thorough primer on the art of cyberstalking, starting with how to set up a fake Facebook page.
It’s not rare in cases like this to have the stalker and their prey share similar traits and flaws. Julia’s no angel, and her mirrored complexity (and Dawson’s textured performance) push the film in the direction of something more than just a typical possessive-ex revenge pic.
Great cinema? Get real! It’s a stalker picture starring an entitled TV actress on the skids. But for what it is, and in consideration of the expectations that accompanied me to the theater, this was a hell of a lot better way to spend the afternoon than anticipated.
Here’s hoping this makes enough to spawn the sequel tacitly assumed by the curtain scene. Ms. Ladd could use the work.