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(2004) ** 1/2 R
105 min. Newmarket Films.

Roger Dodger writer-director Dylan Kidd returns with his sophomore effort: an adaptation of Helen Schulman's novel P.S. In the film, one character admonishes, "Asking the universe for pity is a waste of time," but Louise, a divorcee in her late 30s, doesn't even have to ask—the universe hands her a second chance at love and happiness.

On paper, P.S. sounds disasterously cheesy, with its plot of a woman convinced an artist-slash-grad-school applicant is a reincarnation of her first love. But when the woman is Laura Linney, the young man is Topher Grace, and the director is Kidd, you get a surprisingly subtle and pleasantly off-kilter comedy-drama. Linney's longings, frustrations, and hesitations are heartbreakingly real, and her sex scene with Grace, followed by his using her phone to call his mom, is visceral, seriocomic, and sexy. Linney plays Louise Harrington, the admissions director for Columbia University's School of Fine Art, as a woman who's not entirely the voice of reason she imagines herself to be. Though she's surrounded by chaotic people, she spends too much time trouble-shooting them and sublimating her own needs. Linney's inviting personality enlivens the film immeasurably.

The appearance of Grace's F. Scott character both triggers Louise's self-delusions and offers her the chance to overcome them. After immediately bedding her dream lover, Louise backs away slowly, using offense as her best defense. In one of Kidd's trademark theatrical scenes, Louise challenges F. Scott to forsake his youth for a moment and imagine his potentially bleak future. Diagnosing her destructive impulses, Louise's best friend (played by Marcia Gay Harden) says, "I swear, some people just refuse to let anything good happen to them." For his part, F. Scott cuts an ambiguous figure: seemingly sincere but perhaps an artful dodger (his paintings, by Bryan LeBoeuf, lend the film a haunted optimism). Grace walks the plotline with admirable balance, though his character should be better served by Kidd's screenplay.

Graced by supporting players including Lois Smith, Gabriel Byrne, and Paul Rudd, P.S. plays out like a star-studded Broadway play: the action breathes and unfolds in a lifelike rhythm. Harden's role—as Louise's untrustworthy friend—strains credibility, but at least P.S. feels spontaneous; Kidd cultivates the feeling that anything could happen. That such spontaneity has to be bought with a preposterous plot (and, subsequently, an unsatisfyingly simple ending) is P.S.'s major failing. Elements of Lifetime-styled empowerment romance vie with cosmic teasing, leaving the audience paddling toward the buoyant performances. One might say P.S. has an identity crisis of its own.

[For Groucho's interview with Laura Linney, click here, and for his interview with Dylan Kidd, click here.]

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