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Friday, November 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
"P.S." is a mystifyingly strange movie with a lovely performance at its center; like a pearl hiding within a misshapen, grayish oyster. That performance belongs to Laura Linney, heiress-apparent to Meryl Streep a generation younger, she has Streep's patrician blond elegance, versatility and sharp-eyed intelligence. Would that her eyes had been a little sharper when she read this screenplay, which can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a romantic comedy, a drama or a psychological thriller and settles for being an odd and unbelievable hybrid of all three.
Dylan Kidd, who made his debut with the prickly tale of a misogynist, "Roger Dodger," a couple of years back, knows he has a treasure of a leading lady here, and the movie begins with a loving close-up of her face as she dons makeup, preparing for the day. Linney is Louise Harrington, a divorced admissions officer at Columbia University's School of Fine Arts. She has a requisite ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne, whose blue eyes match Linney's), a best pal (Marcia Gay Harden), a comfortably tasteful Manhattan apartment, a mom (Lois Smith) in the 'burbs and a sense that life has passed her by.
Enter F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace, laid-back and funny) or, rather, enter his graduate-school application on Louise's desk. He shares a name, and a painting style, with Louise's former love, a young man who had died in an accident 20 years earlier. What does Louise do? She calls F. Scott, arranges a personal interview, slips into a cleavage-baring dress and seduces the fellow, who seems quite pleased with this particular form of higher education. "I'm loving this executive recruitment thing," he says post-seduction, a kid in a very grown-up candy store.
So, is he the real F. Scott? Will best pal Missy steal him away, like she did last time? Does anyone care that Louise's ex-husband is a sex addict? And will Louise call up Nicole Kidman, who was trapped in a strangely similar plotline in "Birth," for pointers?
It's mildly distressing to watch a serious movie in which a lovely 39-year-old is fixated with being over the hill, and it's downright depressing to see a depiction of women's friendship that seems entirely based on cat-fight competition. But Linney not only maintains dignity throughout, she gives the movie a sense of purpose it exists so we can watch her, emotions flickering across her pale face.
There's a lovely little moment in the seduction scene, when Louise suddenly shoots F. Scott a tight-lipped smile of affectionate, almost maternal encouragement as if she's just realized that she's the grown-up here, setting the tone. Streep couldn't have done it better, and that's no small praise.
P.S.: "P.S." is opening exclusively at the discount Crest Cinema Center, an unusual choice that speaks volumes about the distributor's level of faith in the film. Too bad despite its flaws, it's a better movie than many that show up on full-price screens.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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