Actress Laura Linney can do it all — except pull three movies together into one. “P.S.,” director Dylan Kidd’s follow-up to 2002’s “Roger Dodger,” asks the earthy blond to handle enough themes to fill a trilogy.
Miss Linney doesn’t juggle her task alone. Sharing the workload are Marcia Gay Harden, Paul Rudd, Gabriel Byrne and Topher Grace.
Not a bad crew when some heavy dramatic lifting is in order.
Too bad the film, based on Helen Schulman’s novel, keeps changing its mind about what story it’s trying to tell.
Lonely college administrator Louise (Miss Linney) holds the fates of potential students in her hands, but she can’t seem to make much of her own life. She buddies up to her ex-husband Peter (Mr. Byrne), but his platonic company only prevents her from meeting someone new.
That changes when she impulsively arranges a personal interview with a college applicant named F. Scott (Mr. Grace). The young man shares the same name as Louise’s high school flame, who died young. The similarities between the two only grow when they meet.
Soon, the two are madly pawing at each other, she seeing visions of her reincarnated ex and he overwhelmed by her awakened sexuality.
The seduction sequence carries on in real time, the actors providing all the mandatory sparks and vulnerabilities.
Just as we settle in for a Mrs. Robinson-style romance, albeit with a supernatural twist, ex-hubby Peter, of all people, makes a startling confession right out of a “Nip/Tuck” table reading. The news rocks Louise and disrupts the film’s tone — not for the last time.
And that’s before we’re introduced to Missy (Miss Harden), Louise’s childhood friend who’s more piranha than pal.
Louise’s family offers little consolation. Her brother Sammy (Mr. Rudd), a recovering drug addict, looms large over both Louise and Peter’s life, yet he’s granted little actual screen time. It’s a mystery best left solved in the DVD commentary track.
“P.S.” is the kind of character study unattached women of a certain age are supposed to identify with, but Louise and Missy carry on like nattering schoolgirls instead of adults.
Mr. Kidd’s static camera shots — an actor’s best friend — let Miss Linney range across the emotional spectrum from desperation to passion and every emotional shade in between. Yet Louise never feels real to us, no matter how calibrated her performance.
The bigger shame is letting Mr. Grace’s delicate work go unprotected. Never mind such anointed “It” actors like Heath Ledger and Josh Hartnett. The “That ‘70s Show” star proves such an affable comic presence that it’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood stars align on his behalf.
The morality of Louise’s affair with F. Scott never enters the story line. Then again, the film is so thematically overfreighted already that any such attempt would surely sink the whole enterprise.
In “Roger Dodger,” Mr. Kidd shed light on the dark side of courtship, but in “P.S.,” illumination serves only to expose the weakness of the material with which he has saddled his strong cast.
RATING: R (Sexual situations, mature themes and strong language)
CREDITS: Directed by Dylan Kidd. Written by Mr. Kidd and Helen Schulman, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. Music by Craig Wedren. Production design by Stephen Beatrice.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
WEB SITE: www.psthemovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS