Faulty Memory

While watching Unforgettable, the third feature from that startling spinner of contemporary noir director John Dahl, I thought of the same cheap crack that every film critic in the country will make if unimpressed by the film: It's forgettable. Indeed, it is not especially memorable. Certainly it isn't upto the level of Dahl's debut film Red Rock West, the best, most wholly satisfying American noir in years, even decades.

In terms of script, however, Unforgettable is a big improvement over Dahl's second movie, The Last Seduction. Despite the gaps in Seduction's plot, it's still more potent than the new film, because star Linda Fiorentino's performance was, well, unforgettable.

Fiorentino is the leading lady in Unforgettable as well, and though her role isn't a flamboyant showcase like her femme-fatale turn in Seduction, she nonetheless may be the best thing about the picture. Dahl has favored her with a different type of character--a research scientist--and Fiorentino comes up with a delightfully fresh take on it.

Except that she's been through a divorce, we learn few details about this shy, distracted, jumpy mouse in dowdy clothes. But the actress makes us sense much more--a streak of tough, pragmatic courage, an undercurrent of loneliness. When we first see her, she's making a dinner address. No one's listening to her and her feeble attempts at levity fall flat, establishing the movie audience's sympathy for her instantly. Fiorentino may be giving us a first in this film: a female absent-minded professor.

Hers isn't the real lead, however--more's the pity, perhaps. The focus is on Ray Liotta as a medical examiner once accused of murdering his wife. Freed on a technicality, but never cleared of suspicion, he lost custody of his two daughters to his sister-in-law, so he's obsessed with finding the actual killer.

When he hears about Fiorentino's experiments--transferring the memory of one lab rat into another through an injection of spinal fluid--he'sdetermined to become herhuman guinea pig, on the chance that images retrieved from the preserved fluid of his wife may exonerate him. Conveniently, Fiorentino's hypothesis is that the most easily transferred memories are of one's intense, "unforgettable" experiences.

Liotta is good--he can do bereavement, and he isn't afraid to go all-out emotionally. But the filmmakers miscalculated in making his character the conventional hero with whom the audience empathizes. If we saw the story, instead, through Fiorentino's eyes, it would keep us guessing about Liotta, and make him all the more fascinating.

Bill Geddie's script is a craftsmanlike piece of work, with all its red herrings skillfully deployed, and Dahl directs with clarity and occasional passion, staging a particularly exciting, fiery climax. Dahl plays the noir game so much better than most filmmakers who try, that it seems a little ungrateful to knock Unforgettable, when it really isn't a bad little picture. But there's something unmoving about it, which may have to do with its banal, reductive approach to the subject of memory.

There's no sense of Rashomon mystery to the way Liotta's borrowed flashbacks are handled--when Liotta recovers a memory, he's just like any character in any thriller finding the missing microfilm or gaining entrance into the secret computer files, or whatever. When Nat "King" Cole strikes up the title song over the end credits, the film we've just seen somehow doesn't seem worthy.

Directed by John Dahl; with Ray Liotta, Linda Fiorentino, Peter Coyote, Christopher McDonald, David Paymer, Kim Cattrall and Kim Coates.

Rated

 
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