What does this sound like? It sounds like a cheap romantic fantasy, contrived to make a chunk of change off single (or wistful) women pushing 40. In fact, p.s. is a character-driven drama, concerned more with its protagonist's emotional life than with her romantic one, though it uses the latter as a way of getting at the former. Yes, the film skirts sentimentality, and once or twice it indulges, but for the most part, it has other plans. You know what else it has? Laura Linney. Which is to say: This movie is not fucking around.
Linney (You Can Count on Me, Mystic River) plays Louise Harrington, the starched (and bitter) protagonist, and she does it with her usual genius for nuance. Louise is tightly composed, absent of any visible passion, though she works in the art department at Columbia University, presumably a locus of expression. Her ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne), also a professor, is a friend; early in the movie, as they discuss their 10 years of marriage, she calls him her "only friend." It's an interesting admission, considering that Louise is frequently on the phone with her "best friend," Missy (Marcia Gay Harden), a tart-tongued mother and housewife languishing somewhere in the suburbs.
Louise's life takes a sharp turn (inward) when she receives an application from F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace), an aspiring artist whose admissions essay professes a desire to avoid a "just add water" life. (The "F. Scott " is silly, but the film wants you to go with it.) At first, it's not apparent why Louise invites the boy in for an interview; all we see is a level of need rising in her, and then emanating from her, that threatens to obliterate anything in its path. She wears, basically, cleavage to the interview, in the form of a pink dress with a two-scoops neckline. During the meeting, she hardly speaks; instead, she stares hungrily at the boy across her desk, lapping him off the floor. Then she takes him home for a drink, and they have sex on the couch.
It's a great move -- for the movie, if not for Louise. By getting the sex out of the way so early, p.s. can be about more than that; it can stretch beyond the perennial cinematic question of will-they-or-won't-they (when you know all along that they will) and instead look more deeply into character, into who Louise is, and why (for example) she has nearly anonymous sex with a kid. Also, the scene itself is fabulous. For one thing, there is no music. For another, it happens slowly, and then very fast, with little fanfare and no declarations of love, or attraction, or anything. In fact, it's impossible to tell whether either party enjoys it. Louise looks nearly rabid; F. Scott is simply stunned. When it's over, anything can happen.
In time, Louise returns to Earth, only to face a series of cascading conflicts. There is shocking news from her ex-husband, words of derision from her brother, and a challenge from her "best friend," all of which change the way Louise sees herself and her life. We learn the reasons for her attraction to F. Scott, and we come to understand the extent of her pre-F. Scott trouble -- just how stuck, and how blind, she had become. Most of this is handled with intelligence and grace, though there is a bit too much mood music attempting to stand in for the work that drama should do. Also, during the exchanges between Louise and Missy, the script slips into a talk-show bitchiness that doesn't suit. Missy's character is intentionally overripe, which is fine, but her speech feels too written, someone's idea of an aging vamp instead of the real thing.
Finally, the romance between Louise and F. Scott is taken too seriously. The picture wants to end happily, so it gives them a chance. F. Scott is a beautiful boy, full of light and energy, and Grace's performance is delightful. But what the characters have is infatuation, nothing more, and it can't last. A braver movie would have followed Louise to an even deeper place, where she has to take her time awakening back to life, most likely alone. It would have delivered her to that dark and fertile territory, acknowledging the gift.
There is still plenty to like about p.s. , including its smart humor and its surprising ability to absorb. Ten minutes after it starts, it ends -- though your watch, strangely enough, has advanced nearly two hours.