One of the realities of film criticism is that a lot times you end up sitting through movies you would never seek out as a paying moviegoer. Sometimes those movies are so much better than you expected that you want to shout it from the rooftops. (Brooklyn comes to mind here.) Those reviews are the most fun to write, for the movies that feel like they need you. Other times you get movies like Unforgettable, a surprisingly well-executed version of exactly what you assumed it would be. Which is to say, it’s a “psycho ex” movie that’s fun, but doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre. It’s a better ending away from being perfect pulp, something Manny Farber would’ve called “Termite Art.” It’s fun while it lasts, let’s say (the opposite of its title, basically). Sometimes that’s enough, but your mileage may vary.
Rosario Dawson plays Julia Banks. She’s gotten over an abusive relationship and has moved down to Malibu to be with her dream fiancée, David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter, just as her restraining order against the last guy expires. But it’s not Julia’s ex that’s psycho of the genre, it’s David’s, his steel-eyed Barbie doll ex-wife, Tessa, played by Katherine Heigl. Now, I could’ve guessed from the trailer that Tessa would spend the whole movie trying to sabotage Julia, and that she’d be doing it over some dude, specifically some insanely bland vanilla man, a Caucasian aspirational husband-bot straight from Crate & Barrel’s Josh Duhamel collection. You know the type. He’s tall. Wears watches. Drives a nice car and doesn’t talk too much or make a big deal about all the money he’s got. David is a Stanford grad who left his job at Merrill Lynch to start a brewery. He’s got money, but also dreams. Earthy, vaguely creative ones, involving investors and hops.
The surprise of Unforgettable is how much fun Katherine Heigl is in it. It turns out she’s much more enjoyable playing the unhinged ex-sorority girl ice queen than she is playing the playful relatable™ rom-com heroine. The concept isn’t much — Unforgettable is basically a gender-swapped thriller version of Daddy’s Home (it’s mom vs. stepmom!), or Big Little Lies minus premium cable and artistic pretensions .(I bet Tessa’s dumb daughter has never even heard of Leon Bridges.) But Tessa’s acts of delicious sabotage are consistently entertaining. She masters both a truly wicked catfishing scheme and subtle gaslighting, like telling Julia conspiratorially, “You guys are so much better, David and I had nothing in common. It was mostly just a physical connection.”
In another nice touch, Tessa has a belittling rival of her own — her mother, played by Cheryl Ladd — who tells Tessa awesomely undermining things like “time doesn’t exist at your age,” and “Tessa, that was beneath you!”
The cruelly hilarious Ladd scenes are some of the best in the movie, making you pity Tessa even as you root against her. Unforgettable‘s great strength is being able to manufacture those scenes of sabotage that are jaw-dropping without inviting complete dismissal. It never quite gets over the top enough that you think “Oh f*ck off” and check out. Likewise, the two principals are both calculating, but the story never resorts to them getting hysterical, a credit as much to the acting and direction (from veteran producer Denise Di Novi) as the writing (from Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson). Meanwhile, David’s thorough blandness and unrelentingly caring pep talks are almost an in-joke on the genre, such that I kind of wish they’d gone full unobtanium and just named him “Handsome Macguffin.”
I also wish Unforgettable had been a little more bold at exploring the racial component that it occasionally hints at. The first time Julia cooks for David’s daughter, she refuses to eat. Tessa says “it’s probably too spicy for her,” which is a master class in subtle racism. At the same time, Unforgettable‘s visibly Latina character is disappointingly named “Julia Banks.” Later in the film, Julia calls the police during a fight at Tessa’s house, never acknowledging what might happen if the cops showed up to a white lady’s house and find a brown lady holding a weapon there. It feels a little like Unforgettable wants to have it both ways, using race for subtle jabs but ignoring it in places where it might get too complicated.
A satisfying ending is a must for pulpy genre films, and Unforgettable‘s is… close. But it resorts to cheap violence in ways that the rest of the movie didn’t, and the resolution is far more faithful to the genre itself than it is to this story in particular. Which is maybe for the best. It’d be a real shame if a truly great movie got saddled with a horrible nothing-burger title like “Unforgettable.” By the way, who keeps coming up with these generic titles that remind me of completely unrelated songs? Did you think you were going to Trojan Horse a psycho ex thriller on some people who came looking for a Natalie Cole biopic? Stop this madness.