Like the periodic, 17-year return of locusts, they arrive like clockwork. Unlike locusts, however, they are an entirely welcome phenomenon. I’m talking about the metronomic revival of slick, disposable female stalker thrillers. Fans of the genre (guilty as charged) will fondly recall the late-‘80s/early-‘90s Golden Age of Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Single White Female — a trash-spectacle trifecta if ever there was one — as well as more recent entries like Beyoncé Knowles’ 2009 schlock gem Obsessed. And if the gender politics of these movies tend to be regrettably retrograde, I’d argue that it’s possible to simultaneously wince at and shrug off their problematic subtext. When they’re done well (or, as well as they can be done), the filmmaker and the audience are winking at one another like co-conspirators. There’s a mutual understanding that, yes, we’re trafficking in insulting, outdated stereotypes here, but since we both know they’re outdated and offensive, let’s just have some fun with them. Hell, Lifetime has built an entire network identity on that have-your-cake-and-eat-it paradox. It’s the rare Hollywood genre where the more outlandishly bonkers the product is, the more entertaining it becomes. Which brings us to Unforgettable — a movie which, it should be noted, was both written and directed by women.
There is nothing novel or particularly surprising in longtime producer Denise Di Novi’s directorial debut. What few twists there are, you can see driving down Fifth Avenue. Instead, what the film offers is guilty pleasure familiarity — it’s the kind of loopy audience-participation movie that’s made to be both laughed at and with. Rosario Dawson stars as Julia Banks, a successful big-city editor at some sort of unexplained dot-com, who’s giving up her career to relocate to a picturesque small town with her fiancé, David (The Odd Couple’s Geoff Stults, the definition of stubbled vanilla hunkiness). David has a young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), and a tightly wound ex named Tessa who’s played by Katherine Heigl with a buttery blonde blow-out and severe center part. It’s the least severe thing about her. From her very first moment on screen, as she’s obsessively brushing her daughter’s hair, it’s clear that Heigl’s Tessa is a crazy-eyed Mommie Dearest. When she’s done primping Lily, she says, “Now you’re prefect…just like Mommy.” With that annoying imperfection ironed out, she can now move on to the item at the very top of her to-do list: Making Julia’s life hell and bringing her down. There’s no way she’s going to let this interloper take what was once hers. To quote a certain bunny-boiling villainess: She won’t be ignored.
As Dawson’s Julia tries to start this new chapter in her life and move on from a troubled past which includes an abusive ex whose restraining order has just expired, she attempts to become both a model wife and a friend/confidante to her soon-to-be-stepdaughter. But Tessa isn’t having it, shooting icy stares Julia’s way, sabotaging her at every turn, and eventually much, much worse as Stults’ David is caught in the middle with the backbone of a bowl of oatmeal. Obviously, we’re meant to be rooting for Dawson’s Julia. But make no mistake, this is Heigl’s party all the way (although Cheryl Ladd as Tessa’s equally frosty and undermining mother is a welcome runner-up).
Since the waning days of her run on Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl has had an up-and-down go of it on the big screen. Apart from 2007’s Knocked Up, she’s never seemed able to find the right showcase for her talents. Is she a daffy comedienne, a dramatic actress, or something in between — a second-tier America’s sweetheart? When she was called on to be sympathetic and likable in movies, it often felt forced and uncomfortable. The industry obviously wanted her to be a movie star, but she seemed to be a celebrity without a clearly defined portfolio. With Unforgettable, Heigl has found a role that fits her like a pearl choker: A cold, passive-aggressive Martha Stewart-esque perfectionist who Whitney Cummings (as Dawson’s onscreen best friend) perfectly describes as “psycho-Barbie”.
There’s no shame in any of that. Jessica Walter memorably played a similar type early in her career opposite Clint Eastwood in Play Misty For Me, Alicia Silverstone took her first babysteps on the path to stardom in The Crush, and Glenn Close managed to even snag an Oscar nomination for Fatal Attraction. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Heigl won’t be feted by the Academy for the otherwise forgettable Unforgettable. But this surprisingly tasty serving of delirious junk food might just get audiences and Hollywood casting directors seeing her in a new light. B–