Unforgettable *1/2

Lousy script and listless direction sink this Rosario Dawson/Katherine Heigl domestic thriller that's sorely devoid of thrills, logic or common sense.

Is it worth $10? No

There's a potent conceit at the heart of “Unforgettable,” a thoroughly disposable thriller that nevertheless asks an intriguing question: What if that bitter bourgie divorcée with the killer looks, workout bod and perfect posture is actually one putdown away from turning into an impeccably attired killing machine?

It's a scenario brimming with potential, but this Warner Bros. release, directed by veteran producer Denise Di Novi with all the personality of a real estate showing, squanders it by explaining away its antagonist's psychosis, thus leeching off the faintest trace of menace. It's a “Fatal Attraction” clone devoid of mystery, a cut-rate “Hand That Rocks the Cradle” where the evil nanny is actually an aging suburban princess with mommy issues and on-point lipstick game.

But let's get real. Many of you are curious to see what would happen if Katherine Heigl, known for playing the good girl in romantic comedies and plagued by rumors that she's a high-maintenance nightmare on the set, was cast as the villain in a subpar Hitchcock knockoff. The answer is kind of soul-crushing: She's actually pretty boring.

Besides, “Unforgettable” isn't even telling her character's story. When we first meet Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), she's sitting in an interrogation room, her face bloodied and bruised. A police detective bombards her, not with the kinds of questions you'd ask a suspect, but with a barrage of exposition. Could she possibly be guilty of ... murder? Di Novi, working from a screenplay by schlockmeisters Christina Hodson (“Shut In”) and David Johnson (“Red Riding Hood”), shows her hand before we can entertain that grim notion. “Of course not,” she seems to be saying. “She's our heroine. No room for that kind of ambiguity here. Let's move along. We're on a tight schedule.”

The movie then turns the clock back six months. Julia, a book editor, is moving from San Francisco to Southern California to be with her hunky fiancé, Wall Street suit-turned-microbrewery-founder David Connover (TV vet Geoff Stults). Her going away party at work is a happy occasion. “You are a survivor,” says Julia's boss/bestie (Whitney Cummings), telegraphing way more than she should.

Julia's relationship with David is on firm ground, except for two little details: She hasn't revealed to him that her jailbird ex-boyfriend (Simon Kassianides) used to beat her, and David hasn't told his ex-wife Tessa (Heigl) he's engaged to Julia.

A hot-button point of contention is Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), David and Tessa's grade-school daughter. Since they share custody, Tessa, turned off (and threatened by) Julia's arrival, voices her (justifiable) concerns over Julia's lack of parenting experience. The power struggle that ensues between the two women is pretty standard stuff, but at least Di Novi is comfortable handling this type of mundane domestic dispute, such as when Tessa commits the cardinal sin of wearing the same dress Julia had just bought at a local boutique where, the manager proudly proclaims, Tessa is one of her best customers.

It's when Tessa reaches her breaking point and brings out her darkness within (her dark passenger, as Dexter Morgan would call it) that “Unforgettable” really runs into trouble. The mayhem, when it finally happens, is unconvincing and giggle-inducing. It also lays bare the film's retrograde gender politics. Julia does battle with Tessa, not to reclaim their independence or lay past trauma to rest, but to become an ideal housewife. She aims to slam the brakes on her nemesis' machinations to derail her shot at genuine happiness, not for her own self-actualization, but to restore order to the patriarchy she's determined to marry into. It's not just the lawns that are being manicured here.

Di Novi's workmanlike direction can only take the feeble material so far, and when she loses her grip, “Unforgettable” disintegrates. (The film was shot by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, but even he's phoning it in.) Before the movie falls apart, however, it serves up a few bright spots. Faced with the younger women's lack of agency, Cheryl Ladd, playing Tessa's domineering mother, swoops in to steal every scene she's in. (It doesn't take much effort.)

Hodson and Johnson's screenplay may be awful, but at least they never lose sight that Julia and Tessa have sexual needs. In the film's strongest scene, Di Novi shows Dawson seducing her fiancé at a dinner party with Julia really coming on strong. She intercuts the sexytime fun by showing Tessa, all by her lonesome in a darkened study, pleasuring herself. It is then, and only then, that “Unforgettable” surrenders to its trashy impulses. The rest of the time, it works overtime trying to convince us this is Serious Filmmaking. In what universe? This isn't competent storytelling; it's poor housekeeping.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

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