Review: Katherine Heigl shows creepy side in forgettable ‘Unforgettable’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Unforgettable' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — She’s known for romantic comedies, wooing James Marsden in “27 Dresses,” Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” and Gerard Butler in “The Ugly Truth.”

This weekend, Katherine Heigl shows her cold, creepy side in the new thriller “Unforgettable,” which never quite lives up to its title, but might offer enough moments of delicious danger for a date night.

Set in San Francisco, the film follows equestrian Tessa Connover (Katherine Heigl), who just can’t get over her ex-husband David (Geoff Stults) after their infidelity-fueled divorce. She’s now jealous over David’s new fiancee Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), who’s overcoming an abusive past of her own.

At first, Julia offers an olive branch, as the two try to smooth over their differences for the sake of David and Tessa’s daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). But as Tessa increasingly stops by the house to offer parenting advice, Julia fears that Tessa is becoming an obsessive — even violent — stalker.

After decades of romantic comedies and an Emmy for TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” Heigl deserves credit for at least showing a different side, taking the risk of playing against type as a dangerous, icy blonde. She plays Tessa for all she’s worth, coming across as genuinely disturbing in her more subtle glances, then descending into over-the-top moments where she could have dialed back on the diabolical.

It’s actually Dawson who carries the movie, proving that she deserves more leading roles. We’ve seen her star gradually rise with supporting parts in “Alexander,” “25th Hour,” “Sin City,” “Rent,” “Death Proof,” “Seven Pounds” and “Unstoppable,” but “Unforgettable” shows she can strap a movie on her shoulders and carry it to the finish line, even if it means getting scratched and clawed in a cat fight.

Refereeing these clashes is fresh filmmaker Denise Di Novi, who makes her directorial debut after decades as a Hollywood producer, from Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” (1988) to Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “Ed Wood” (1994). 

As a director, Di Novi delivers a few admirable touches: an ominous knife slices through Julia’s name on a cake, double and triple mirror reflections symbolize cross-generational pressure from Tessa’s equally controlling mother (Cheryl Ladd), and recurring hallucination sequences involving Julia’s ex-boyfriend (Simon Kassianides) use shadowy interiors and well-timed cuts for jolting jump scares.

But while the premise has potential for a digital-age “Fatal Attraction” (1987), the script doesn’t give its characters much credit. Some critics call this sexist exploitation of the “Psycho Barbie” variety, but it’s hard to make that charge when the movie is directed and co-written by two independent women executing their vision on screen. Still, it’s a bit odd when a few minor scratches to the face will cause the villain to give up purely over vanity reasons. What’s the message here? Stay pretty or die?

Screenwriters Christina Hodson (“Shut In”) and David Leslie Johnson (“Orphan”) are better than this. In fact, they open with a promising framing device of Julia being interrogated by police. This seems like an engrossing window into the story — especially with Robert Wisdom cast as the interrogator, bringing his Lt. Colvin cred from “The Wire” — but we don’t cut back to it enough for it to be effective.

From here, the plot points feel awfully convenient, particularly Julia’s lack of a Facebook account, allowing Tessa to create a phony page. This could have worked under any other scenario, but it doesn’t make sense considering Julia’s recent job was editing an online publication. You can either keep the professional backstory or keep the creepy Facebook plot device, but you can’t have both.

If that sounds like nitpicking, there are larger problems with the presentation, as the script devolves into heavy-handed cliches down the stretch. During the climax, the protagonist makes an especially dumb decision to make a noisy phone call from inside the killer’s house, instead of either leaving to call 911 or actually sneaking up on the villain to deliver a sneak attack that she doesn’t see coming.

More disappointingly, we get the horror trope where the hero once again fails to deliver the death blow when she has the villain down for the count. We just know the monster is going to come roaring back to life for one final scare. Didn’t we learn something from Wes Craven’s horror satire “Scream?”

By the end, the movie drew unintended laughter from the audience, who couldn’t take it seriously but was nevertheless having a good time. Indeed, there’s a certain campy pleasure in the communal experience of a crowd yelling at the movie screen together. In this light, the villain’s ultimate demise is a riot — like the cork-screw in “The Girl on the Train” — as is the final surprise during the resolution.

Still, after seeing a masterful gem like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) earlier this spring, this thriller feels like a fun but cheap movie of the week. In other words, “Unforgettable” is rather forgettable.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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