If there's one stereotype "P.S." dispels right off the bat, it's the notion of today's twentysomethings as career-obsessed strivers. Young F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace) thinks he might like to enroll in Columbia's graduate master of fine arts program. And why not? His undergraduate experience at the Rhode Island School of Design was nothing but "good people, good times." So he fills out an application, writes a check and forgets to include slides of his work in the package.
In real life, this move would result in the cashing of the check and the tossing of the rest, but in the world of "P.S.," the slip-up happens on F. Scott's lucky day. Louise Harrington (Laura Linney), the head of admissions, had a boyfriend in high school with the same preposterous name. F. Scott the first left her for her best friend and then died; an experience that'll stay with you. So even before laying eyes on F. Scott, Louise knows he's the boy for her. She schedules an interview -- F. Scott's phone manner makes Jeff Spicoli sound like Alistair Cooke -- puts on her lowest-cut dress and makes her move.
Sure, it sounds like an invitation to litigation, but once you get beyond the absurdity of the premise, it works. Let's face it -- who better to appreciate a melancholy older woman with a tragic past and a penchant for beret and cape combinations than an art student who pins an F. on the lapel of his Scott to make himself seem more interesting? And who better to value a callow young Werther with a sunny disposition and a way with a semi-literate phrase than a woman skulking into middle-age swathed in all the reminders of her lifelong disappointments?
Because -- here's the thing -- Louise doesn't just spend too much time with her ex-husband, a handsome professor named Peter (Gabriel Byrne), whom she learns helped himself to the student body during their 10-year marriage, she spends too much time in her past. Thirty-nine, divorced and lonely, she spends her mornings primping for no one and her lunch hours exchanging sad smiles and sadder Saturday plans -- "I'm getting a manicure!" -- with her ex. Louise's mom, Ellie (Lois Smith), is a bustling, barrel-shaped type who dotes on her ne'er-do-well brother, Sammy (Paul Rudd), and can still devastate Louise with an insensitive comment about her (perfectly lovely) figure. And she talks every day on the phone to her lifelong frenemy, Missy (Marcia Gay Harden), who lives with her rich husband and twins on the West Coast.
"P.S.," which was adapted from a novel by Helen Schulman, is director Dylan Kidd's second film, the first being the scabrous "Roger Dodger," which starred Campbell Scott as a misogynistic skirt chaser starting to lose his footing. In a way, "P.S." presents the female side of the same coin. Louise's take on men is not nearly as virulent as Roger's take on women, but both of them are stuck in a bitter, repressed state of emotional retardation they feel qualifies them to instruct their young charges (Roger had taken custody of a young nephew for a weekend) on the horrors the world has in store for them. In one scene, Louise asks F. Scott to strip, stand in front of the mirror and imagine himself as a chubby, balding, 44-year-old failure. At that moment, it's not clear whom she's trying to punish -- her current boyfriend, her dead boyfriend or herself.
Linney is a master at conveying a kind of blurry vulnerability; she has the kind of softness that seems to invite people to barge in, rearrange her sense of self and tell her who she is. Grace is somewhat less convincing as a gifted and ambitious young artist -- F. Scott's laid-back dude pose and lack of intensity suggest more time spent in a frat house than an art studio. This clean-cut, cheery kid is no would-be countercultural visionary and seems an unlikely source for the lovely paintings that are presented as his. But as a 20-year-old man courting a 40-year-old woman, he is perfect -- fresh, tender, sincere and clueless. Still, he manages to make everything life has taught her seem not worth learning.
Not that Louise needs any encouragement on that front. Her defiance in the face of time is awe-inspiring -- if completely insane. Deliciously perverse and nutty throughout, "P.S." springs to life with the appearance of Missy -- a bawdy broad of the old school -- who makes a trip to New York specially to see if the young Scott is all the doppelganger he's cracked up to be. Soon, she and Louise have devolved into a drunken pile on the floor of the hotel suite, fighting over the departed love of their lives. "You're just jealous that Scott and I are married, living in Soho with two beautiful kids and a Jack Russell terrier," pouts Missy, playing out a what-if-he-hadn't-died scenario.
"He would have dumped you in three weeks for a sculptress with a toe ring," barks Louise.
You know she should just let it go, but for a moment, you're glad to see that at least she's got company.
MPAA rating: R for language and sexuality
Times guidelines: Sex in the afternoon, swearing at all hours.
Laura Linney...Louise Harrington
Topher Grace...F. Scott Feinstadt
Gabriel Byrne...Peter Harrington
Marcia Gay Harden...Missy Goldberg
Paul Rudd...Sammy Silverstein
Lois Smith...Ellie Silverstein
A Hart Sharp production, released by Newmarket Films. Director Dylan Kidd. Executive producers Michael Hogan, Julian Iragorri, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael Werner. Producers Robert Kessel, Anne Chaisson, John N. Hart Jr., Jeffrey Sharp. Screenplay Helen Schulman, Dylan Kidd, based on Schulman's novel. Director of photography Joaquin Baca-Asay. Editor Kate Sanford. Music Craig Wedren. Production design Stephen Beatrice. Costume design Amy Westcott. Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Exclusively at ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4AMC; and the Mann's Criterion 6, 1313 3rd St., Santa Monica, (310) 248-MANN #019.