“Paramnesia,” a psychiatric term bandied about in The Forgotten, is more or less the reverse of amnesia — you “remember” things that didn’t happen, suffering from the delusion that fantasies are real. I find myself wishing for a spot of paramnesia just now; I wish I could remember the last 91 minutes as a well-spent time at the movies. The Forgotten could then live on in my memory as either a plausible thriller grounded in reality, or a wildly implausible thriller that’s at least fun to watch. But who wants to see — or remember — a wildly implausible thriller that’s also grim and humorless?
Director Joseph Ruben used to have a lot more fun at work. The witty horror-fantasy Dreamscape (1985) was his entry into the mainstream, and The Stepfather (1987) was some kind of dark-comic classic. Then he appeared to decide he wanted to make blandly uninvolving thrillers about threats to the family. The dull abusive-husband hit Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and the rancid Bad Seed rewrite The Good Son (1994) displayed depressing evidence of a quirky filmmaker whose wit had deserted him, and now The Forgotten, Ruben’s first film in five years, begins with the grief of a mother (Julianne Moore) whose nine-year-old son died in an airplane crash. Where the movie goes from there is worthy of the wacky Ruben of Dreamscape, except it’s all taken deadly seriously.
Moore’s memories of her son are challenged one by one — an altered photo here, an empty scrapbook there. Everyone around her, including baffled husband Anthony Edwards and patient shrink Gary Sinise, remembers nothing about her son; they insist that he never existed and that Moore suffers from, yes, paramnesia. But she knows they’re wrong, you see; she knows. If, as Roger Ebert suggested, the movie had left it ambiguous whether Moore was insane, we might’ve had a worthwhile mind-blower here. But since Moore is the star, and this is a $42 million major-studio film, we can’t be allowed to doubt the heroine, or ourselves, for even a minute.
The plot clutters itself with standard paranoid clichés — the shadowy agents stalking Moore, the good cop (Alfre Woodard) who suspects that Moore is on to something (and who turns out to serve no purpose in the plot at all), and a blank-faced man (Linus Roache), named only “A Friendly Man” in the credits, who turns up every so often, looking most unfriendly. Moore finds another parent (Dominic West) whose daughter died in the plane crash; he has forgotten her, but has turned to the bottle to blot out … something. Eventually he believes Moore, and the two go on the run, sleeping together in motels without much sexual tension and improbably avoiding (and in one case, capturing) agents who presumably are trained for this sort of thing. West’s character is a former hockey player, but the script doesn’t even have the wit to show him body-checking one of the agents into a wall.
Is the mystery explained? Oh, yes. A Friendly Man pops up again, like the paper-clip guy in Microsoft Word, to tell you everything you need to know. Some characters are abruptly vacuumed high into the air, as if aborted from the screenplay once they’ve outlived their usefulness (actually, going to the movies would be more fun if more films did this — half the cast of Sky Captain could get sucked into the ozone within the first reel); other characters are simply, no pun intended, forgotten, like the kindly neighbor woman (Jessica Hecht) who tells Moore “We should hang out more!” but then vanishes from the film after one other scene. Maybe she just really, really didn’t want to hang out.
By the end, everything is set right, as in Ruben’s other nuclear-family thrillers. I was reminded of another horror film concerning a mother surrounded by people who said she was nuts but who were actually conspiring against her; that movie was Rosemary’s Baby, which ended on an altogether more chilling note of mother-child reunion. Of course, the difference is that Rosemary’s Baby is still regarded as a classic 25 years later, whereas The Forgotten will most certainly live up to its title.