In P.S., Louise Harrington finds herself suffering from the malaise and ennui of the not-yet middle-aged, of the promise and desires of youth left unfulfilled. She has a relatively successful position as the Director of Admissions for Columbia University, an amicable relationship with her ex-husband, Peter (Gabriel Byrne), a mathematics professor at the university, a life of static routine, devoid of new experiences. Her circle of relationships includes Missy (Marcia Gay Harden, overexposed, in what should be a limited role), Louise’s brother, Sammy (Paul Rudd, underused), a recovering drug addict, and Louise’s mother, Ellie (Lois Smith). Wish fulfillment and fantasy come into play when Louise receives an application for admission into the fine arts college from an F. Scott Feinstadt. Startled from her ennui by his name, shared by an ex-lover who died in a car accident, Louise contrives to meet him by arranging a bogus interview. In appearance, manner, personality, and artistic inclination, F. Scott is identical to Louise’s former lover.
The unfolding storyline is held in tension by the question of F. Scott’s identity. Is F. Scott real? Is he a figment of Louise’s imagination? Has he been reincarnated? Is his reappearance in her life a grand cosmic coincidence? To Kidd and Schulman’s credit, P.S. plays with, but never settles on, a single explanation for F. Scott’s resemblance to Louise’s former lover. Thankfully, P.S. ultimately dispenses with the one explanation, F. Scott as a purely subjective creation of Louise’s overactive imagination, that would have resulted in one belief-stretching plot turn too many. Kidd and Schulman prefer instead to take the magical realist route in P.S., allowing the ordinary and the fantastical to co-exist, sometimes uneasily, together in the same world. Leaving F. Scott’s identity unanswered also helps to support the mystery and vagaries of a relationship that, at least on its surface, seems impossible (or highly unlikely to last).
Premise aside, where P.S. begins to falter is in a contrived second-act revelation by Louise’s ex-husband, Peter, about himself and their marriage that threatens to derail the narrative (and leaves the audience feeling flat-footed). Louise’s conflicts are unnecessarily multiplied: resolving the issue of F. Scott’s identity and the nature of their relationship, and resolving the residual feelings for her ex-husband. Louise’s answer to her predicament, running to her mother’s suburban house for aid and comfort, falls short of plausibility, at least for an adult woman approaching forty, especially one with a distant relationship with her mother. At her mother's house, she encounters her estranged brother, Sammy, but here, as elsewhere, Louise's relationship with Sammy is shortchanged. We learn little about their relationship, beyond Louise's disappointment and anger toward Sammy's recurring drug problems. Sammy, however, is on hand at the appropriate time to offer a word or phrase of wisdom.
P.S. takes another misstep by oddly choosing to introduce Missy two-thirds into the film (up to that point, Missy is only a voice on the phone). Missy’s physical introduction into the film is used to resurrect long ago conflicts between Louise and Missy (hint: a young artist is involved) and push Louise toward self-realization and self-knowledge. As a character, Missy is self-involved, over-indulgent, and unsympathetic, a suburban mom bored with her wealthy husband and her comfortable lifestyle. Louise’s friendship with Missy appears to be a symptom of her lack of self-esteem, passivity and tendency to idealize the past (and her friends). Unfortunately, Missy’s presence in the last third of the film pushes F. Scott to the margins; he’s talked about and rarely seen. This change in focus could have been ameliorated by introducing Missy earlier in the film and refocusing the last third of the film primarily on Louise and F. Scott’s underdeveloped relationship.
There are other questions or issues worth mentioning. First, Kidd and Schulman erred in having Louise and F. Scott enter into an intimate, casual relationship the first day they meet, which, in a film with credibility issues, adds one more unanswered question about character motivation (psychological realism seems to be in short supply here). Second, Kidd and Schulman fail to explore the respective motivations for Louise and F. Scott’s decision to enter into a relationship. If the main characters genders were, in fact, reversed, Kidd and Schulman would have been compelled to examine whether Louise was using her position as an admissions officer to her advantage. F. Scott also stands to benefit substantially from his relationship with Louise. But with P.S.obsessively, singularly focused on Louise’s personal growth and self-actualization, these questions, like several others, remain unanswered.
© Mel Valentin, 6th April, 2005
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