Grieving mother Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) is getting better. She only stands at her dead son Sam's bureau for about an hour a day now, saying his name out loud and caressing his baseball glove and favorite New York Mets hat. She fluctuates between handling the newspaper clippings detailing his disappearance/presumed death on a plane with six other Brooklyn youngsters and watching videotaped home movies of him. But she's still too attached, say frazzled husband Jim (Anthony Paretta) and bespectacled-and-therefore-scholarly psychiatrist Dr. Munce (Gary Sinise). Telly should just let Sam go, they suggest, for one simple reason: He never existed.
Stubbornly, Telly refuses to accept their version of reality. The photo albums may be suddenly empty and the videotapes blank, but she knows in her heart that she had a son. On one of her nightly visits to the neighborhood playground swing set, she meets up with Ash (Dominic West), a drunken ex-hockey player who remembers his now nonexistent daughter, but only, it turns out, intermittently. Who -- or what -- could possibly be attempting to erase their memories? No sooner do they ask this question than they find themselves on the run from half of the National Security Agency as well as a decidedly non-governmental figure identified in the credits only as Friendly Man (Linus Roache).
Convinced she's not crazy now that Ash is on board, Telly approaches Jim for a little help, but discovers that he's suffering from a wicked case of jamais vu in a scene that could (and should) be creepy but just isn't. Nothing in the movie ever is, actually, and that's the fault of director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy, True Believer) and cinematographer Anastas Michos (Mona Lisa Smile) who paint a few pretty pictures but struggle to create any kind of a sustainable mood.
Writer Gerald DiPego (Phenomenon, Angel Eyes) shoulders more than a little of that blame, too. His teased-out, truth-is-out-there concept would probably fare better if there had never been an X-Files phenomenon. Telly is the Fox Mulder of her world: a mournful paranoiac who won't listen to what sounds like reason and who browbeats innocent bystanders with the blunt force of her beliefs. Luckily, she doesn't share Mulder's addictions to porn and sunflower seeds; unluckily, she cries a whole lot more in one day than he ever did in nine seasons. (She is Julianne Moore, after all, and must emote with every last ragged breath in her body.) But come on: An ambiguous, slightly threatening lurker known only as "Friendly Man" seems rather reminiscent of a certain "Cigarette-Smoking Man," doesn't he? The impossibly labyrinthine imaginings of X-Files creator Chris Carter will monopolize the monolithic-government-conspiracy market for all time; he knew how to build things to a foaming fever pitch. The Forgotten is just barely in the same league as Carter's groundbreaking TV series, much less its advertised cinematic sibling, The Sixth Sense. DiPego's supposed stunner -- the key to all these maddening mind games -- arrives after one chase scene too many and then just floats in the air, not uninteresting but hardly sophisticated.
What The Forgotten does have in its favor is a cast that keeps the audience in the game. Moore needs to branch out and stop having nervous breakdowns on film, but there's a reason she keeps getting these kind of parts and it's because fragility is her most muscular onscreen persona. Relative newcomer West (Mona Lisa Smile, HBO's The Wire) is solid, his angst as hushed as Telly's is operatic. Their uncomfortable chemistry is the film's most complicated -- and least explored -- concept. The Forgotten should have been a most existential exercise, hinting as it does at that timeless tree-falls-in-the-woods dilemma. If no one remembers you, did you exist? Thanks to The Forgotten's mediocre-at-best memorability, that's a question this film might accidentally find the answer to.