Director: Denise Di Novi
Stars: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl
3 (out of 5) Globes
If she wanted to, Katherine Heigl could be a hell of a scream queen. As Tessa, a snooty rich bitch and failed Stepford Wife, an actress mostly known for playing plucky doctors and bubbly rom-com leads reveals an untapped gift for high camp. Tessa is hell-bent on destroying the unsuspecting new fiance (Rosario Dawson) of her ex-husband (Geoff Stults), which involves taunts both small (passive-aggressive scolding) and big (stealing her phone, hacking its information and seducing her abusive ex-boyfriend online). She does it all with nostrils flaring, eyes bulging, lips smacking. Even when the line is as simple as “Do you have anything organic?”, she gives it a murderous chill.
But is “Unforgettable” camp? Yes and no. It walks — or tries to — a fine line between trash and unexpectedly deep compassion. Dawson’s Julia is, of course, the sympathetic victim. Struggling to overcome the trauma of a prior relationship, she keeps her past a secret from her new beau, all while fumbling badly to play second mom to his young daughter (Isabella Rice). Julia has so much on her plate that she doesn’t realize when she’s being gaslit. Still, her tormentor is no mere hissable monster. Raised by an eternally over-bearing mother (Cheryl Ladd), Tessa charges furiously through a perfect life that fell spectacularly apart, trying to hold onto a fantasy about what wealthy women deserve that became deeply uncool in the last couple decades.
Yes, this is a movie in which a white, blonde Aryan type tries to re-assert her dominance over a Latina. But “Unforgettable” tries to understand, if not excuse, its baddie. Think of it as one of those pieces that tries to get to know clueless Trump voters, only in the form of a [blank]-from-hell movie from the ’90s like “Single White Female” or “The Temp.” (It even includes a rip-roaring cybersex scene that was presumably first conceived around 1995.)
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As a study in sympathy for the devil, it’s shockingly capable. It’s a touch more wobbly when it comes to slipping a portrait of spousal abuse into an increasingly ridiculous thriller that ends with a fireplace poker fight. Still, there’s enough grace notes to suggest the filmmakers aren’t merely exploiting realistic agony for genre thrills. The battle between Rosario and Katherine has nothing on Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford, but like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, “Unforgettable” understands that trash is better when the emotions feel all too real.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge