p.s. (2004)

2004-10-15 (Limited release)

“It was a good marriage,” says Peter (Gabriel Byrne), leaning against a brick wall as he munches his sandwich. “We had 10 years.” His ex, Lou (Laura Linney), nods, “Six of them were really good.” Best friends since their divorce, Peter and Lou have less in common than they imagine; still, they share regular dinners together, one or the other cooking, and easily arranged lunch hours like the one occasioning this conversation. He’s a math professor at Columbia (opening up the secrets of the universe to his perpetually younger and younger co-eds); she’s an admissions officer in the School of Fine Arts. In other words, their opposition is clear.

So is their routine, which Lou endures unquestioningly until seeming fate, in the form of a letter, drops into her hands. Looking through applications to the Fine Arts School, she finds one whose return address stops her short. “F. Scott Feinstadt,” reads the corner, in blue-penned handwriting, with a note on the application, “just add water.” And so, at the start of p.s., Lou is caught up in a mystery and sudden seeming magic that takes her breath away. She sits and composes herself, lights a cigarette, then calls. The application is missing slides of his artwork, she notes, and when he apologizes, promising to send them first thing in the morning, she invites him to meet with her instead, to come for an interview. When he asks if it’s required, she answers truthfully, no, “But if you want to be taken seriously, you should interview.” That seals it. “I want to be taken seriously,” F. Scott affirms.

Some days later, she’s waiting in her office, her flowered summer dress cut low enough to show her 30-something cleavage. F. Scott (Topher Grace) has not showed up. When he does arrive, breathless and mumbling about getting lost on the subway, she looks him up and down, trying to be subtle, authoritative, and seductive, all at once. By the end of the afternoon, she’s brought him back to her home, poured him some wine (“I’m really digging this executive recruitment thing,” he says), and, essentially, jumped his bones on her sofa. Surprised at herself and a little unnerved, Lou climbs off E. Scott, who gasps a little, then asserts, “That was awesome!”

Such moments, as movie-engineered as they seem, are enhanced considerably by Linney and Grace’s completely lived-in performances; simultaneously affectionate, startled, yearning, and anxious, they make awkwardness into art. F. Scott worries out loud that this interlude might affect his chances to get into Columbia, hoping that Lou can maintain a distinction between personal and professional obligations.

Though F. Scott is properly mystified, you already know a little something about the reasons for Lou’s impropriety. This by way of a train trip she takes to her childhood home, where her mother, Ellie (Lois Smith), has kept Lou’s room exactly as it was (she also asks after Peter, though the divorce is hardly recent). In her room, accompanied by a sad soundtrack, Lou goes through a shoebox of mementoes, revealing her longing for a high school boyfriend, of the worst sort — an artist who died young, in a car accident that sent him tearing through a windshield. Lou’s first love, also named Scott, looms as an impossible ideal, no matter that his art is mushy or his love for her complicated. That is, perfect Scott dumped Lou just before his death in order to date her best friend, Missy Goldberg (Marcia Gay Harden), a point Missy likes to bring up whenever feeling vaguely threatened by her lifelong rival.

Adding on to all this life-sucking nostalgia is Lou’s family background. Mom is earthy (she gardens when Louise shows up in tears, teaching her little girl, again, the value of being commander of this one little piece of earth, responsible to no outsiders), and apparently so attached to her fenced-in house that she’s perpetually available to Lou, who still feels abandoned, and Sammy (Paul Rudd), an investment banker and recovering addict who, Lou points out, used to steal from Ellie to support his habit. Sssst!

The tensions within this little group run high, and provide a convenient, schematic framework for Lou’s desperation and frustration, quite underlined when Peter stops by for dinner, following Lou’s afternoon tryst and happy sense of sexual fulfillment. How are you feeling, he asks her. “I’m wonderful,” she glows. Not for long, as Peter reveals to her that their marriage was hardly “good,” as they have agreed it was, but rather terrible. Not only does he have a new girlfriend named Farrah, but he met her at an addicts’ meeting. “I’m a sex addict,” he confesses, adding that he wants to be honest with Lou, to reveal himself truthfully at long last. “You’re at Step Nine!” moans this longsuffering sister of a 12-stepper. “I hate Step Nine!” She hasn’t even had a chance to tell him about her boyfriend, if that’s what F. Scott is.

While Lou struggles to come to terms with her past rhythms and to build new ones with F. Scott (who is playful, smart, and confident), she also comes to realize that her anger, so long repressed, has turned toxic. Expediently, her self-awareness coincides with F. Scott’s, and both forgive one another, generous at last. It’s nice for them, but tedious for you, as p.s., for all its efforts to achieve offbeat quirk, is in the end stumbles into that most familiar narrative territory, coming of age after all.

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