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Complicated Women
by Mick LaSalle

. "P.S."

"P.S." met my expectations because I'd seen director/co-writer Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger". I was prepared for his strangely behaving characters in situations that are peculiar and borderline bizarre. His work brings to mind the saying about making your own bed and having to sleep in it. His people sleep in a bed with a bumpy set of wrinkles. My troubles with the movie starts with the setup.

Young artist Feinstadt (Topher Grace) decides to palm himself off as F. Scott Feinstadt in his application for admission to the graduate fine arts program at Columbia University. When the application comes to the attention of admissions officer Louise Harrington (Laura Linney) the name on it freezes her. It's the exact name of her late high school sweetheart. So, what, this highly intelligent administration bureaucrat thinks the applicant is a reincarnation? The art department is into the supernatural on this campus? Reanimation? Return from the dead?

Based on one of these principles, she's already head over heels over the boy she's never met when she calls him and invites him to her office for an interview. During the phone call, the applicant breaks down all barriers of formality or common sense and calls her "Lu." Is this a way to address someone you need to judge your work? Is he a senseless wiseass who is just on auto-game-playing mode?

One phone call and he knows how far he can push and get away with being a social retard. He arrives late, kids her about personal issues as though they're equals, treats her like she's a date, if not dirt, and whaddayaknow? She takes him home and screws him. Just as we're beginning to wonder if this was anything more to him than a case of self-destruction, he clarifies his level of appreciation by exclaiming, "that was fucking awesome!" So, maybe he's truly attracted to the older woman, after all. Clear as mud.

As the script would have it, it's enough to give him conflicts. Yes, that's in the script--it just never felt convincing. Part of it is in Kidd's antic liberties with human behavior but Linney doesn't work for me as this kind of sex object either, so casting is another part of my problems with the picture. Sure, the lady can express a little lust, but motivation and chemistry were questionable enough to make watching it laborious. The only point of staying with it was to see where such behavioral concepts could go from there.

After a charming early scene to introduce Gabriel Byrne as Peter Harrington, her ex-husband and close confidant (remember, the dead F. Scott Feinstadt was her high school lover, never a husband), he goes on to confess to her that he's a recovering addict with sex as his drug of choice--one that he indulged in all through their marriage. This admission is so Harlequinesque as to be undeserving of serious contemplation. Byrne had to have had a devil of a time doing it with a straight face.

Then, there's friend and buddy Missy (Marcia Gay Harden), another aging ex-heartthrob who was Louise's competitor for the affections of their original F. Scott Feinstadt. They are pals and nemeses in the arena of love and boyfriends. So some emotional sparks are created between them when the new F. Scott spends a (purportedly loveless) night with Missy. Again, fabricated out of whole cloth but I have to admit the scenes between these two horny mommas are colorful and vibrant.

Linney is... Linney. Safely within her customary range of comfort, she is not well adapted to sirenesque territory. Would that she uses her plain Jane sincerity more appropriately, as she did in Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count On Me," an acclaimed role of a sister--not a lover. Or, even, as the Mrs. in the currently running "Kinsey."

Topher Grace ("Mona Lisa Smile") is, at times, successfully comedic with an airy, insouciant lightness. Or, is that glibness? In any case, it comes to some off-putting flippancy in the delivery of his character although, despite the tendency toward being unsympathetic, he is the one voice in the piece that engenders interest.

Byrne is as reliable an actor as there is, and he does a yeoman's job of providing a grounded depth even as the quality is coming apart by the shaky demands of the script. Harden is obviously enjoying her spoiler role against her close peer, Linney and, when they're together, there's a feeling of creative soul-mates. Paul Rudd ("Clueless") as Sammy, Louise's brother, seems to be playing his minor role as though it's a central element in the melodrama.

As a director and a writer you work with what you've got... with how and what you think. Director/co-writer Kidd is nothing if not daring. His is a peculiar mentality, however, and in the effort to dramatize, even when working from a novel as in this case, he creates people who raise questions... about credibility. I wish I could say I can't wait to see Kidd's next movie, but I can't say that. I can wait; I can wait just fine.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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