There’s only one rule for sexy thrillers: be sexy. They can be lame, stiff, unbelievable‒hell, they can skimp on the thriller, but for god’s sake, do not spare the sexy. A sexy thriller with no libido is like a romantic comedy with no sense of humor. It falls flat and nobody has fun.
The sexy thriller sub genre is known by many names: sexy thriller, steamy romance, erotic thriller, romantic drama (for the prudes), etc. (My partner and I are most fond of calling them “torrid affair” films.) They’re almost always about a central couple, and either one of them is cheating or things are going great until someone from the outside - usually from one of their pasts - comes knocking. Either way, the central relationship is in trouble. Sometimes it’s about a gradual slip, an office friendship seamlessly slides into a secret series of sexfests. Sometimes it’s a man or woman scorned on a discrete journey to ruin a past lover’s life. Actually those two scenarios about cover every possibility in the genre.
Over the past six months or so, my partner and I have watched a ton of this sultry cinema. An incomplete list would look something like this: Unfaithful, The Boy Next Door, Obsessed, No Good Deed, Fatal Attraction, A Perfect Murder and Perfect Strangers. So naturally, when the trailer for Unforgettable came out, we couldn’t pull out our wallets fast enough. The chance to see Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson put their emotional dukes up, when they’re not doin dudes in strange places, promised to be a joyful bag of mixed results.
While critics announced Unforgettable as decidedly rotten at 24%, per rottentomatoes.com, that turned out to be a fairly optimistic score in relation to others we’d watched: The Boy Next Door (10%), No Good Deed (10%), Perfect Stranger (11%), Obsessed (19%). While none of those are outstanding films, by any measure, those scores suggest this sub genre is a bit of a critical punching bag. It’s not taken seriously. Even Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, one of the best iterations this side of the year 2000, has a sub 50%. That said, Unforgettable sucks. It’s just the dregs.
It breaks the cardinal rule of sexy thrillers: it forgets to be sexy. You have to understand, these torrid affair films are usually a house of cards, held together by seduction and poor but risque decision making. Without the draw of steamy coitus between two very physically fit humans, the whole thing falls apart.
Unforgettable’s dry libido makes sense. It’s not excusable, but it makes sense considering Rosario Dawson and George Stults have less chemistry than Terry Kiser and Jonathan Silverman in Weekend at Bernie’s. And besides a lack of chemistry, which is mainly because Stults has the chops of a 2x4, there’s just so little attention paid to developing the central relationship. Stults is a pseudo-hunk who’s left Wall Street trading for the allure of starting a brewery in the saturated San Francisco market.
Instead of giving the couple screen time, the screenwriters routinely defer to giving Stults lines like, “I have to work late, honey,” or “I have to finish up some work downstairs.” Exciting stuff. The only time they have sex, it’s spontaneous - in the women’s restroom during a dinner party - but strange and cold. They reacted like they’d made a bad decision at a workplace holiday party.
Without the proper development and chemistry, it’s nearly impossible to cultivate eroticism. The film, which comes in at a lean 100 minutes, has a one-track mind. It only cares to develop Heigl’s manipulations and Rosario Dawson’s victimhood. And that is not the film we were marketed. The trailer sells a proper torrid affair.
Unforgettable isn’t unique in its lack of steamy seductions; many of the aforementioned don’t give their characters the sexiness they deserve. But that’s no excuse. The Boy Next Door, a film that was rightfully panned, was at least sexy! Hell, even an ancient Woody Allen made sure Match Point had its dose of steamy rendezvous.
It makes sense, then, why the good erotic romances - the Fatal Attractions, Disclosures and Unfaithfuls of cinema history - have become so...unforgettable. Those films take care to build drama out of their clearly defined relationships, instead of plugging in characters to a plot template. Successful sexy thrillers care about their characters, and in effect, we care about them.