A vape-smoking Katherine Heigl lounges in her character’s signature skintight dress as she plots the destruction of her ex-husband’s fiancée by way of social media. No, that’s not a scene from Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” dream diary circa 2004. It’s an instantly iconic moment from the new thriller “Unforgettable,” which hits theaters Friday.
Critics have already descended upon Heigl’s latest starring vehicle, calling it “sexist swamp” and swinging softballs at its easy target of a title. The film currently holds a paltry 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and will likely drop even further the way the tide is turning. Is “Unforgettable” the film to mention in conversation about representational wins at your next dinner party? Nope. Is it essentially a rehashing of “Obsessed” without Beyoncé’s exceptional line delivery of “I’mma wipe the floor with yo skinny ass”? Pretty much.
But dismissing the movie as reductive trash does a disservice to what turns “Unforgettable” from another throwaway Lifetime movie with a budget into a pure unadulterated campfest: Katherine “I need juicy, dramatic, emotional material” Heigl.
In her finest performance outside pretending Gerard Butler was the slightest bit attractive in “The Ugly Truth,” Heigl easily steals every scene. As Tessa, the scorned ex-wife of David (Geoff Stults) who’s moved on with Julia (Rosario Dawson), she schemes her way into your heart with every eyebrow arch and psycho side-eye. Tessa and Julia exchange bitchy threats, fight and one prevails. And it’s entirely satisfying because “Unforgettable” knows exactly what it’s doing and why you came to see it.
Armed with the mental stability of someone who’s marathoned “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” back to back, Heigl’s Tessa is deliciously unhinged. With a chic wardrobe and icy blond locks that could best be described as Ivanka Trump-esque, she spends most of movie staring at her reflection in a vanity mirror. Or she’s messaging Julia’s violent ex, who plays a key role in the film’s effective, but ultimately shoddy finish.
Tessa is so keen on her rival’s demise that she literally gets off (in a silk robe, duh) orchestrating a nasty revenge scheme that puts Julia face to face with her abuser. Most of these scenes are filmed solo and with little dialogue, as she slips deeper into delusion. A crazy-beyond-saving Heigl milks every moment.
Considering how Hollywood and our culture at large have been quick to brand the actress as a villain IRL for being outspoken and reportedly “difficult” on set, there’s something incredibly gratifying seeing her lean in on screen here. Despite this reputation, Heigl has predominantly played characters to root for, be it the sunny Izzie Stevens on “Grey’s Anatomy” or her seemingly endless and interchangeable rom-com heroines.
Here, although our sympathies lie with Dawson ― who does her best with the sketchy outline of a character ― it’s Heigl’s Tessa who walks away with the movie. The audience sides with (and even claps for, in my screening) her character because it’s clear how much fun Heigl is having with a part that doesn’t require her to be infinitely likable.
When the the two do eventually come to blows, “Unforgettable” elevates the requisite catfight into something slightly more interesting than expected. Whereas “Obsessed” dropped a chandelier on Ali Larter in Beyoncé’s tasteful Los Angeles mansion, here, the “psycho chick” trope is peeled back a layer. Tessa is simply a product of her upbringing and responsible for her own demise, infusing the film with an inner depth that the genre rarely affords.
Seeing Heigl embrace playing a complex villain feels like the ultimate middle finger to those who cast her aside. “Unforgettable” isn’t expected to rake it in at the box office this weekend, but it could mark a turning point for Heigl’s career after a series of failed television projects and big-budget flops. If she can get us to cheer for a character as deliciously disturbed as Tessa, then maybe the world will finally come to its senses and cheer along Heigl once again.