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Friday, Sept. 8, 2006

A 'Sex and the City' that runs out of steam

The first half hour of "P.S." could be a "Sex and the City" episode: 39-year-old Louise (played by the always superb Laura Linney), an admissions director at Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts, decides one day that she's had it with routine (work, lunches with her ex-husband, solitary weekends) and braces her synapses for romance.

P.S. Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Laura Linney (left) and Topher Grace in "P.S." (c) POSTSCRIPT LLC, 2004

Director: Dylan Kidd
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 9, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Actually, the movie (titled "Louise ni Otozureta Koiwa" in Japan) doesn't have her deciding or bracing in an obvious way. But somehow the sequence of her putting on elaborate makeup and a chic black beret and knee-high boots indicates an inkling on her part that something is about to happen, baby. Or give. Or cave. Sure enough, at the end of a long office day poring over art-work slides she spots the application form of F. Scott Feinstadt, which happens to be the name of her high-school boyfriend, killed in a car accident during senior year. (You don't come across a name like that, let alone twice in a lifetime).

Louise wastes no time as she gets the 20-something applicant on the phone to schedule an interview in her office. And when the day rolls around she shoehorns herself into a tight little pink dress with a decollete cut to the angle of the Niagara Falls, dabs on dollops of rouge, and when she gets to work looks alternately at the clock and her reflection every five minutes. Think of the column Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City" would write about THIS.

When F. Scott (Topher Grace) makes an appearance Louise can't believe it: It's him, her one true love! Returned to life as a swaggering, irreverent, but oh-so-sweet young thing in baggy jeans and a sweat shirt! Without further ado she invites him back to her apartment, hands him a glass of wine ("I'm loving this executive recruitment thing," he wisecracks) and practically pounces on the lad atop the living room sofa.

In the States, much ink has been poured about this particular segment, and deservingly so. It's the most honest and emotionally real moment in the entire movie. You can tell that for Louise, this is the first sexual encounter in a long time. Hurriedly and awkwardly she goes about the process of intimacy and when she asks F. Scott whether he has any "protection" her voice comes about brisk, nervous and -- oh no! -- authoritative. For his part, F. Scott is at first completely floored but quickly rallies by, er, going with the flow. When it's over he asks to use the phone to call his mom. ("I promised I'd call her. You know how moms are!") Louise's face registers love, confusion and total embarrassment -- it takes Linney's skilled and extremely nuanced performance to pull the whole thing off and still retain some dignity.

Sadly, the rest of "P.S." offers little in the way of insight, or even laughs, and turns rather dreary at the crossroads. Director Dylan Kidd (who cowrote the screenplay with novelist Helen Schulman) is clearly enamored by the premise of the story, but not enough to try and avoid the obvious stereotypical pitfalls. His portrayal of Louise is spotty, which makes it much harder to care about her relationship with F. Scott. But at least Louise gets to be a person whereas the rest of the cast seem hastily assembled from some emergency self-help book for the mid-life crisis set.

Louise's ex, Peter (Gabriel Byrne), looks weary and silly, first admitting to Louise that he's found a girlfriend and then hysterically fessing up that he's always been a sex addict (except not with her during their marriage) and has been seeing a counselor. ("I've slept with tens, no hundreds, no thousands of girls . . . and some boys too.") Louise's n'er do well brother, Sammy (Paul Rudd), is dropped into a few inconsequential scenes, just so Louise can rant at his underachievements. The capper is Missy (an outrageously decked-out Marcia Gay Harden), Louise's best friend who suddenly flies out from California where she lives the minute she senses Louise has a new man in her life. Married, mother of twins, owner of an SUV and bored out of her mind, Missy guzzles margaritas and lures F. Scott into her hotel room for a close inspection. Who is this woman? She comes off like a monster femme inhabiting Louise's imagination, a Ms. Hyde with heaving cleavage, put there to make Louise feel classy and demure and authentic and other feel-good doodah culled from women's magazine cliches.

In the end, one is left with the rather depressing (and stereotypical) conviction that life in mid-life is a total crock. Louise, Missy, Peter and Sammy all flay their arms and rant about humiliation and unhappiness, and to listen to them you'd think that after a certain age there's only one flavor on offer behind the counter and it's labeled "sour." No wonder F. Scott spends most of his screen time being quietly bewildered. What he thought was plain romance turns out to be something markedly less fun and sexy and much more work than he bargained for. Which, of course, is one of the disappointments middle age has in store for everyone.

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