'Unforgettable': Film Review

File under “Guilty Pleasures.”
4/21/2017

Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl face off in a suspense thriller that marks veteran producer Denise Di Novi’s directorial debut.

For Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl’s characters in Unforgettable, phony civility gives way, as it inevitably, cathartically must, to full-blown smackdown. They’re the warring queens in this well-appointed fairy tale, the beloved new girlfriend and the barely tolerated ex-wife, one good and one very, very bad. Played with utter conviction, neither is as self-assured as she seems, but they’re both ready to take it to the limit as director Denise Di Novi steadily turns up the heat on a lethal bouillabaisse of sex, domesticity and juicy archetypes — a recipe that’s equal parts Fatal Attraction, Charles Perrault and Nancy Meyers. 

At the helm for the first-time, and working from screenwriter Christina Hodson’s slick balancing act of aspirational romance and dark psychology, longtime producer Di Novi enlivens the generic mix with a tinge of camp and a sure grasp of mean-girl dynamics; Heathers, after all, was one of her first producing credits. Poised to make a box-office killing, the glossy femme-centric thriller has a sharper edge than the setup, giddily teetering on retrograde nonsense, might suggest. 

First and foremost, “It’s not about David,” as Dawson’s character, Julia Banks, tells Heigl’s Tessa Connover in the heat of battle. That would be David Connover (Geoff Stults, of Grace and Frankie), the story’s prince. Like most fairy-tale princes, he’s handsome, has a castle (Southern California real estate, inherited and decidedly luxe) and is as dull as freshly laundered dirt. A former Wall Street hotshot turned Main Street entrepreneur, he owns a microbrewery. Of course. He’s a catch, as your grandmother might put it, but the jury’s out on whether he’s much of a prize. 

As the story opens, a visibly battered Julia is being questioned by a police detective (Robert Ray Wisdom), the only suspect in the murder of her abusive ex-boyfriend (Simon Kassianides). The action then reels back six months to the dream before the nightmare: In San Francisco, website editor Julia gets a spirited send-off from her boss and bestie, Ali (Whitney Cummings, aces in the wisecracking Eve Arden role). In the spirit of fresh starts, she packs up her little car and heads to the tony (fictional) SoCal enclave of Foothill, where she’ll move in with fiancé David and get to know his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). David’s ex, Tessa, quickly claims center stage, even on days when Lily is at her dad's. 

With her knife-straight tresses and exactingly tailored sheaths (kudos to costume designer Marian Toy, who, in contrast, dresses Dawson in flowing prints), Heigl’s unhappily divorced Tessa is the quintessential hissable blonde. She lives in high style without the bother of an actual job — which would only interfere with her full-time pursuit of controlling perfectionism. Thirty years later, Unforgettable flips the Fatal Attraction equation: It’s the stay-at-home mom who’s needy and deranged and the career woman who finds balance, epitomized in the warmth and humor between Julia and Ali (who both work in publishing, as did Glenn Close’s friendless character in the earlier thriller). 

It's always fun to hate on a rich villain, but Di Novi and an excellent Heigl also give us the hurt beneath the monstrous surface. When Tessa witnesses the rapport among Julia, David and Lily in an early scene, the director and Caleb Deschanel, her accomplished cinematographer, zero in on a look so wounded that it lays the foundation for all the gaslighting devilry to come, both IRL and online. (Warning to the masses: Make your passwords less obvious!) 

But the screenplay by Hodson (Shut In) also applies a thick layer of explanatory background in the form of Tessa’s hypercritical mother, Helen, showing that the poisoned apple doesn’t fall far from the twisted tree. Played to glacial perfection by Cheryl Ladd, Helen is a forbidding figure who’s nonetheless adored by her granddaughter, with Rice a convincing innocent caught up in the matrilineal madness. Helen’s rigid ideas about a woman’s worth — self-hatred disguised as Botox-smoothed self-love — might seem antiquated if she weren’t spewing them in the middle of a Hollywood movie. 

No wonder a glassy-eyed Tessa spends so much time brushing her hair before the mirror. And no wonder Julia, afraid of looking weak or damaged, doesn’t tell David about the domestic abuse in her recent past, or the restraining order against her ex that — uh-oh — has just expired. 

Di Novi (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; Crazy, Stupid, Love.) is more interested in the psychological than the scary, but she ratchets up the dread for effective gotcha moments, with Deschanel’s prowling camera capturing an intruder’s p.o.v. as well as a potential victim’s alarm amid the shadows. Pulse-point editing by Frédéric Thoraval and the rising churn of Toby Chu’s smartly used score intensify the jitters. Throughout the drama, but especially in the austere elegance of Tessa’s house and the vibrant sumptuousness of David and Julia’s, Nelson Coates’ character-defining production design ups the aspirational/emotional ante. 

Like Heigl, Dawson finds the right degree of nuance within her role, making Julia’s emotional contradictions as persuasive as her resilience, her fighter’s instinct and her smarts. But all the characters, with their movie-glamorous sheen, are figures in a thrill ride, some more fully realized than others. It’s definitely not about David. 

What’s recognizable and real in Unforgettable is the way women can turn self-doubt against one another, and the way jealousy can corrode a soul. Di Novi pulls it all together with flair, complete with a nod to the 1945 Gene Tierney starrer Leave Her to Heaven, perhaps Hollywood’s most deliriously demented portrait of jealousy. Over-the-top villains like those played by Tierney and Heigl might be scarce, but mean girls are out there. Lock your doors. Change your passwords.

Production companies: RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Di Novi Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Sarah Burns, Whitney Cummings, Simon Kassianides, Isabella Kai Rice, Robert Ray Wisdom, Alex Quijano, Cheryl Ladd
Director: Denise Di Novi
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Producers: Denise Di Novi, Alison Greenspan, Ravi Mehta
Executive producers: Lynn Harris, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Nelson Coates
Costume designer: Marian Toy
Editor: Frédéric Thoraval
Composer: Toby Chu
Casting: Susie Farris

Rated R, 100 minutes

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