2 ½ stars (out of 4)
A romantic movie comedy can sometimes be delicate to maintain. In "p.s."--Dylan Kidd's follow-up to his superb feature debut "Roger Dodger"--some of the shine eventually rubs off his new film's gossamer wings.
Not so for the movie's star, though. Playing a woman in her late 30s who seems to rediscover the tragically lost love of her youth, Laura Linney gives a luminous, nakedly emotional performance. It's a smart movie, and Linney's Louise is one of the best jobs by a movie actress in any new American film this year: full-bodied, funny, perceptive, whimsically human, radiantly attractive.
The movie is based on Helen Schulman's 2001 novel "P.S. I Love You," and Linney's character, Louise Harrington, is an admissions officer in Columbia University in New York. Schulman's tale, streamlined by Kidd, is about the crises and repercussions of Louise's love affair with a young painter/prospective grad student named F. Scott Feinstadt ("That '70s Show's" Topher Grace), who has the same looks, personality, talent--and name--as the love of her life, who died in a car crash in his teens.
It's a tough assignment: Linney has to convey brains, ambivalence and inner anguish while keeping the right tone of erotic whimsy and sidestepping any traps of incredibility and smarmy bathos. But she succeeds almost completely. With the warm, solid humanity and keen observation that irradiated "You Can Count on Me" and "Mystic River," Linney makes Louise's perfect-seeming yet flawed academic life believable, and makes credible and appealing as well her hot affair with young F. Scott and the dubious plot premise that springs it.
The movie isn't as lucky. I loved Dylan Kidd's first feature, "Roger Dodger," which had some of the sharpest on-the-prowl comic dialogue of any Manhattan sex comedy since Woody Allen's heyday in the '70's and '80s. By comparison, "p.s." falls apart halfway through. Despite an excellent supporting cast--Gabriel Byrne as Louise's philandering ex-husband/best male friend Peter, Marcia Gay Harden as her best gal-pal Missy Goldberg and Paul Rudd and Lois Smith as her drug-addicted brother and ever-kvetching mother, Sammy and Ellie Silverstein--something in "p.s." goes mushy and implausible.
When the movie concentrates on erotic behavior though, it's pretty good. The early sections of "p.s.," in which Louise meets (or re-meets) Scott, consistently bring smiles, as her qualms are stripped away and they're nudged into the bedroom. The actors are obviously having fun and their scenes have lightness, sexiness and the right touch of comic anxiety.
But when Kidd begins uncovering more plot complications, the movie bloats and sags. You can appreciate what he's trying to do: make something honestly romantic, affirmative and female-centered after venting sexual cynicism and skewering male chauvinism in "Roger." But I couldn't buy most of the movie's latter sections, beginning with ex-hubby Peter's sudden eruptions of obtuse sexual confession and continuing into whiny emotional unveilings by nearly every other character around the lovers. The movie is at its best when it focuses on Louise and Scott, at its weakest elsewhere--and there's too much elsewhere.
What worked so beautifully in "Roger Dodger" was the way Kidd balanced our attraction to Campbell Scott's acid breeziness and brainy charm as Roger with amused shock at his increasing cynicism and selfishness. Roger was a cold-blooded sexual opportunist ripe for a comeuppance, one in a long line of conniving movie studs that includes Paul Newman's "Hud" and Jack Nicholson's Jonathan in "Carnal Knowledge."
In "p.s.," by contrast, Kidd tries to solicit unsullied sympathy for a character, Louise, who also behaves like a sexual opportunist, even if the story's weird premise seems to give her that right. Linney and Grace conquer us. But the movie's best, funniest, most romantic moments begin to spin away after the first seduction scene--as if Kidd were a secret moralist who didn't trust the ways of the heart. He shouldn't have taken the "I Love You" off "P.S."--in the title or the movie.
Ultimately, "p.s." confirms Kidd's talent without expanding it or achieving the comic/dramatic heights of "Roger Dodger." But Linney does achieve a romantic/comic peak of her own with her sympathetic, graceful playing of Louise. In those mischievous early "p.s." love scenes, Topher Grace is lucky to have her and so are we.
Directed by Dylan Kidd; written by Kidd, Helen Schulman, based on the novel "P.S. I Love You" by Schulman; photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay; edited by Kate Sanford; production designed by Stephen Beatrice; music by Craig Wedren; produced by Robert Kessel, Anne Chaisson, John Hart, Jeff Sharp. A Newmarket Films release release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (language and sexuality).
Louise Harrington - Laura Linney
F. Scott Feinstadt - Topher Grace
Peter Harrington - Gabriel Byrne
Missy Goldberg - Marcia Gay Harden
Sammy Silverstein - Paul Rudd
Ellie Silverstein - Lois Smith