|Forgotten, The (2004)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 24 September 2004|
“The Forgotten” has as its theme the power of memory and of a mother’s love. This theme could have been expressed in many ways, of course, but the filmmakers have chosen one of the most unusual—even improbable. The result is that the handsome (if too dark) movie hovers uncertainly between being remarkably good and being a total crock. Explaining just how it does this would require revealing far too many spoilers; let’s just say the story is a peculiar amalgam of an urban New York drama, “The X-Files” and “Signs.”
It seems clearly one kind of movie for the first third, but turns into something else. When Julianne Moore suddenly realizes what’s really going on and suggests this idea to Dominic West, his response “I’m having a National Enquirer moment” rings true—many in the audience will feel the same way. The rug has been pulled out from under us, that rabbit we thought was coming out of the hat has become a tiger.
The problem lies in the writer’s view of the material. Gerald Di Pego has been around for years, writing a lot of TV movies, including the last two Incredible Hulk outings; his theatrical films include “Phenomenon” (with John Travolta) and “Instinct” (with Anthony Hopkins). His scripts are often imaginative, but rarely disciplined, and he seems to think wonder trumps logic.
Science fiction—and yes, “The Forgotten” is probably SF—differs from fantasy in that stuff has to be explained in at least a semi-logical sense. If a fairy godmother waves a wand and turns mice into horses, no explanation is necessary. But a similar transformation done by a scientist would require some kind of logical-sounding, if totally fanciful, explanation. “The Forgotten” is science fiction treated as fantasy. No, we don’t need lengthy explanations of anything, but a hint of logic is needed. At the end, there’s a phenomenal development which the audience is expected to buy into immediately, without question. It’s as if Di Pego and director Joseph Ruben think their audience will consist entirely of the easily impressed. Throughout the movie, there are big, clumsy lapses; logic is left in tatters.
We first meet Telly (Moore) on a swing in a small playground in Brooklyn (that’s where we last see her, too); she’s still grieving over the death 14 months earlier of her nine-year-old son Sam. He’d boarded a private plane with other children en route to camp, and then the plane was lost at sea. Telly’s husband Jim (the durable Anthony Edwards) has dealt with this loss in a matter-of-fact manner, but Telly obsessively pores over news stories, photos and videotapes. She’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jack Munce (Gary Sinise), but they seem stalled on her fixation on Sam.
But then there is no Sam—and never was. To her horror, she finds all photos of Sam have disappeared; he’s even gone from group photos with his parents. The videotapes are blank; even old newspapers with stories about the missing plane no longer exist—and never did. No one remembers Sam but her, not even Jim. Desperate, she turns to Ash Correll (Dominic West), a retired hockey player whose daughter Lauren was on the same plane. The two children were friends, and Ash and Telly met when the kids got together.
But he doesn’t remember Lauren. Even when Telly finds something in his apartment that, to her, is sheer proof that Lauren existed, Ash isn’t convinced, and calls the cops. But the cops turn her over to agents from the National Security Administration….
The script errs, in a sense, by showing us the photos and videos of Sam; we saw them—we know he really did exist at one point, in perhaps an alternate reality. So when everyone else starts looking at Telly with sympathy, curiosity and apprehension, thinking she’s about to go bonkers, we know that they’re wrong and Telly is right. This perceptual blunder weakens the suspense; otherwise, the film builds up a pretty good head of tension.
Another error lies in Telly not seeking out the parents of the other four kids who disappeared on that flight. We see that she’s obsessively read and reread all the newspaper articles on the event; surely she would have know the names of some of the other parents. A simple line from Telly to Ash is all that was needed: “you’re the only parent I could contact.” But no one brings up this idea; it’s most likely that Ruben and Di Pego hope the audience will simply overlook this yawning chasm.
And there’s another, too: Telly lives in New York, but apparently never talks to anyone except her husband and a downstairs neighbor. Didn’t Sam go to school? Didn’t he have other playmates than Lauren? Doesn’t Telly have any relatives? Doesn’t Jim? Don’t they have any other friends? It’s mentioned in passing that Telly is a book editor; doesn’t she work with publishers? The movie seals her in a little capsule of existence, and we’re not supposed to notice that she has no past, no acquaintances (other than the downstairs neighbor), no contacts other than her psychiatrist.
This is the first Julianne Moore movie in the sense that, say, “Sleeping with the Enemy” (also directed by Ruben) was a Julia Roberts movie: it’s a star vehicle, and Moore is a sturdy vehicle for the load. She’s a very strong actor, and here is playing a very strong character who has to keep increasing her stamina as she’s faced with new challenges—some of them amazing. With this movie, Moore arrives as a full-fledged movie star.
The rest of the cast is very good, and Moore and West strike real sparks; there’s a lot of sexual tension in their many scenes together, even though the scarcely touch. She partly convinces him to consider the possibility that she’s telling a truth he has forgotten (like the rest of the world) by her attractiveness. He’s been drinking pretty steadily for 14 months, and by sheer will power she gets him to give it up in favor of their quest to recover memories—and perhaps their children.
Cinematographer Anastos Michos makes excellent use of weathered-looking New York locations, though Ruben has chosen to have everything shot at such a low light level almost the entire movie seems to be taking place at dusk. There are many very high angle shots, some straight down, which at first are puzzling until you discover that they relate to the plot-behind-the-plot.
“The Forgotten” looks like a very serious movie of, say, the “Kramer vs. Kramer” ilk; it doesn’t look like, or is cast like, the kind of movie it really is. This style is maintained all the way through; even when you think that gaudy high-tech stuff might show up, it never does. This is a good idea—but the basic story isn’t. Or rather, it’s far too familiar an idea; when you realize what’s going on, you’re disappointed, even though Ruben continues to pull of sudden-shock scenes and other inventive thriller ideas with great panache. The amazing fate of one of the supporting characters is something I have never seen in a movie before—and that’s a tribute to Ruben and his crew. It’s a major surprise, but is in keeping with the basic story. (And it happens again a couple of times.)
The dialog at the beginning is all suited to a tale of psychological troubles; Sinise assures Moore that gradual forgetting is normal—the mind doing its job. Ruben and Di Pego include several scenes of normal absent-mindedness—Moore briefly forgets where she parked her car, she thinks she had a cup of coffee when she actually didn’t. This is a good buildup but the plunge into the kind of movie it really is plays in an unwelcome, abrupt fashion. Right away, Ruben switches to a kind of chase melodrama, with Moore (and later West) dashing about dark New York streets and alleys, fleeing from the NSA agents—and another more mysterious person we see from time to time through the film.
The movie is helped by the casting; Sinise makes a very credible psychiatrist, West a completely believable ex-hockey player (and a believable American), Anderson a thoroughly acceptable nebbish. You might wonder why as intense a person as Telly would ever have ended up with a dweeb like Jim, though. The boy playing Sam in flashbacks is terrific, a great-looking, very real-seeming kid with a natural squint.
As the movie becomes increasingly unlikely, the tension grows apace, so even if you’re thinking “now WAIT a minute” too much is happening too rapidly for disbelief to hinder enjoyment. It may be after you leave the theater that the sheer unlikeliness of the whole thing will manifest itself. But the bigger weakness is that the core idea is just too familiar; miniseries have been based on it, movies, books, TV shows—even entire series. Di Pego should have found another hook on which to hang his tale of the durability of mother love. But even so, he could hardly have found a better actor to embody this idea than Julianne Moore. It’s an interesting, well-made movie, even if the whole thing is something of a trick, even if the filmmakers think their audience is easily wowed and impressed more by intentions than by accomplishment.