Back when the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was in full swing and the movie was in the works, Lionsgate produced a feature film adaptation of Addicted. The novel by popular erotica author Zane concerned a happily married woman who harbors a dark secret: sex addiction. It was the kind of movie that major American studios hadn’t made since the early 2000s when Adrian Lyne’s UNFAITHFUL (2002) was a surprise hit. Not an “erotic thriller,” exactly, but a drama that devoted a fair amount of screen time to sex. Around the same time ADDICTED hit theaters Sony/Screen Gems had a surprise hit with NO GOOD DEED, a home invasion thriller with an unusually respectable pedigree including Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson in the leads. Both of those films were marketed largely to black audiences, and while Lionsgate switched their focus back to Tyler Perry films to court that audience Sony has made it a point to release a sexy new PG-13 thriller in the Fall (THE PERFECT GUY in 2015, WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS last year).
While those films did a decent job of scratching a particular itch, it has been confounding that none of the major studios have really capitalized on the blockbuster success of the FIFTY SHADES films. Despite each of the first two films grossing well over $100 million, American production companies have apparently been unwilling (or unable) to cater to the audience that made that franchise a hit. Even “mockbuster” specialists The Asylum only did one knock-off (BOUND starring Charisma Carpenter) timed to capitalize on the release of the first FIFTY SHADES movie. So it’s not entirely surprising that it has taken three years for another R-rated film to come from a Hollywood studio marketed heavily on its sex appeal. UNFORGETTABLE is the directorial debut of veteran producer Denise Di Novi, and the first real test of whether the success of the FIFTY SHADES franchise can be replicated.
Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) is moving in with her fiancé David (Geoff Stults). David runs a thriving brewery in his California hometown, where he relocated from New York with his wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) and their young daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). While Tessa appears to be absolutely perfect—as in Stepford-level perfect–something caused a rift between her and David leading to their divorce. Tessa remained in the same town where David lives so they can share custody of Lily, and when Julia enters the picture there is some understandable tension. This tension rapidly escalates when Tessa learns that David and Julia are engaged, information which spurs Tessa on to a campaign of terror to drive a wedge between the two and put her family back together again on her own terms.
If this sounds very Lifetime Original Movie, that’s because it is: UNFORGETTABLE feels like a Lifetime movie that somehow broke out of cable jail and made a run for the big screen. Its R rating gives it a little leeway to be darker and a bit more explicit than its small-screen sisters, although there is no graphic nudity in its sex scenes and not too much profanity to speak of. There seems to be just enough sex and violence to hit the threshold for the R rating, but not enough to make it difficult to edit for screenings on commercial cable down the road. This is an odd choice given the relatively explicit sex scenes of the FIFTY SHADES films, but given the general skittishness about sexuality in mainstream American cinema it’s not entirely surprising. So what is it that Warner Brothers expects to draw audiences?
The cast is a good start. Dawson is typically great, and Cheryl Ladd has a fantastic supporting role as Tessa’s alpha bitch mother. But Heigl is the unquestionable star of the show, really sinking her teeth into the part of the increasingly unhinged Tessa. She plays Tessa as alternately sympathetic and bone-chillingly cold without ever tipping too far into cartoonish absurdity until near the end of the movie. That restraint is actually one of the film’s biggest weaknesses, as it builds very slowly to its inevitable climax. It takes a long time to get there, but the final showdown is highly satisfying. Along the way there are some flashes of what the film could have been if it had been pushed just a little further out: Tessa berating Lily for being scared of riding a large horse (Spitting “You are not getting off this horse,” barely keeping a lid on her rage), baiting Julia with stories of her and David’s sexual exploits, staring at herself in three separate mirrors while doing her impeccable makeup as Lily looks on. As much fun as the film is, it’s a shame it didn’t use the freedom of its “adult” rating to go truly bonkers.
But the question remains: Is it any good? Well, the trailer for UNFORGETTABLE lets you know exactly what you’re in for. This isn’t BARRY LYNDON. It’s a big-screen Lifetime movie with slightly more risqué content, the kind of thing that used to hit the screens regularly in the 1990s in the wake of FATAL ATTRACTION and BASIC INSTINCT but hardly gets made any more. It’s competently produced and directed, again recalling Lifetime productions but with more Hollywood gloss. It raises and ignores several interesting potential directions its story could go, including the genuinely bizarre fact that Julia and a police detective are the only non-white characters in the movie who have any lines—what exactly is going on in this bizarro white utopia in which Julia has found herself? Why does her best friend Ally (Whitney Cummings) literally never do anything other than sit by her phone and wait for Julia to call? Don’t expect an answer to those questions, or many others. This is a film designed to be watched with a group of people at a certain level of intoxication for maximum enjoyment. If the multiple parties of folks who showed up to the FIFTY SHADES movies are looking for a similar experience, they’re going to have a great time with UNFORGETTABLE. And if that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, you’re probably right.
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