It Must Have Been Love: Di Novi Debuts with Classic Camp Tropes
For her directorial debut, Unforgettable, producer Denise Di Novi attempts to resurrect the rated R adult drama, once popular genre in the late 1980s through the 1990s, the kind of hard-edged melodramas which tended to feature women on either side of the patriarchal divide struggling to command their own agency.
Whether through control over their male partners, careers, or sexuality, many of these narratives tended to instill black and white juxtapositions of women as either the painstaking, sacrificial wife or the hysterical, sexuality liberated neurotic. And no matter the combination, the heroines and the villains proliferating these ventures were always white. But Di Novi, despite conjuring a narrative featuring two strong willed female leads, does little to dispel these traditional stereotypes, insistently hell-bent on portraying them as objects revolving around the traditional patriarchal nucleus, a white man who forces their displacement as he follows his economically enriched dream job. And even beyond these subverted aspects of obedience (included the invisible but normalized misogyny which remains the established bedrock of the bourgeois, overtly monogamous heteronormative relationship), Di Novi has more considerable problems to contend with, mainly a laughably written script which lacks the kind of menace and supplemental character development to make this anything more than camp dressed up in haute couture.
Leaving behind a successful career as an editor in New York, Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) sets off for sunny SoCal to be with her new beau David (Geoff Stults), a man who left behind a lucrative position at Merrill Lynch to open his own brewery. Upon arriving, all seems well when David’s daughter Lily comes to visit. But it quickly becomes obvious his ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) still harbors feelings for David, and believes Julia has usurped her rightful position in his home. With a past of abuse already behind her, Julia realizes Tessa’s ill-will too late, and finds herself being victimized once more by figures from her past as Tessa does all she can to prove Julia is not only an inept mother but a deceitful woman, as well.
The only real ironic element of Di Novi’s debut is its bland title, which only enhances the film’s lack of identity. But if there’s any silver lining, it has to be a feverishly pitched performance from Katherine Heigl in Hell-Hath-No-Fury-like-Faye-Dunaway-is-Joan-Crawford mode. With a platinum blonde hairdo from the Saruman style of wintry evil, Heigl becomes a maven of icy sneers and violent hair brushing (though she doesn’t come close to dethroning the iconicity of a Glenn Close or a Rebecca De Mornay). Instead, she gets an empathy pass, a victim descending from a heavy handed lineage of white lady abuse, as evidenced by her relationship with domineering matriarch Cheryl Ladd.
In the film’s best over-the-top bit, Ladd describes how she manipulated her daughter into a pregnancy, as a child is the “cement” which secures the bond between a husband and wife (never mind the weighted down analogy which also could be ascribed). As a film about the viciousness with which a white woman reacts to her displacement from the hearth, Unforgettable could have been a minefield of subversity considering the casting of Rosario Dawson as the racial other with the traumatic past resulting in her light shades of PTSD. But Di Nova doesn’t bother with any such depths, missing an opportunity as grandly as with a modernized Fatal Attraction in 2015’s The Perfect Guy. But the actual “cement” being sought out in Unforgettable is the entitlement which grows in the wake of significant privilege.
Dawson has the thankless task of navigating a role decked out with the usual vulnerabilities associated with the trophy wife, the new woman who can’t seem to navigate unseemly issues about her past or hold on to children or jewelry like she ought to. A sequence where she sails into a fashion boutique to try on a white dress suggests (beyond the obviousness of her upcoming nuptials) the masquerade of trying on ‘whiteness,’ the power color associated with Heigl and Ladd, a tradition of a privileged class of their purebred kind. Ridiculously, Di Nova uses this as a minor plot twist, which only further neuters the logical progression of Dawson’s character.
Perhaps most bland of all is Geoff Stults (in a role outfitted for a Josh Duhamel) as the handsome, supposedly charming white man who somehow convinced two beautiful women to upend their entire lives to move to a sleepy Southern California town so he could create a brewery from scratch. Most of his dialogue is inane, at best, always completely ambivalent about the significant stress his new girlfriend might potentially be experiencing. Somehow, comedian Whitney Cummings manages to land her lines with the intentional comic undertones they were intended (sans a sequence with donuts at the finale), but she’s hardly the acid tongued bestie of a Julianne Moore in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), a much more entertaining and formidably conceived B picture about two women vying for control over a white picket fenced home life.
Although it’s pleasurable to see Heigl in such an unlikeable form, she’s allowed a bit more room to play in this realm in 2015’s Home Sweet Hell, a more blatant black comedy where she portrays a housewife unhinged. But beyond the pair of nasty blonde harpies pecking at those who defy them, Unforgettable certainly falls short of the state its title suggests.