USA, 2004. Rated R. 97 minutes.

Cast: Laura Linney, Topher Grace, Paul Rudd, Lois Smith, Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden
Writers: Helen Schulman and Dylan Kidd
Original Music: Craig Wedren
Cinematography: Joaquin Baca-Asay
Producers: Robert Kessel, Anne Chaisson, John N. Hart, Jeffrey Sharp
Director: Dylan Kidd


Grade: C+ Review by Erika Hernandez

Gaining entrée into the Ivy League takes more than high SAT/GRE scores and a recommendation letter from Mrs. Tinsley, the English teacher. Some applicants are born and groomed for it. They do AP work, travel the world, read the Classics, and learn to play multiple instruments. They launch mural painting competitions, plant trees, and spearhead adult literacy campaigns. These polyglot decathloners mean business, and when their apps hit Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia, they elegantly reverb, “I am, quite simply, The Shit.” There are loopholes, of course—exceptions are made for the quadruple legacy, the underprivileged shining star, the prized athlete, the whopping donation check, the Little Man Tate. (Heck, I once knew a man who swore he talked his way into Harvard while sharing a hunk of Amsterdam hashish with an admissions rep. But that was the ‘60s and I digress.)

If you are hell bent on getting into a top school and do not fit into the above categories, there is still hope. According to p.s. (a film directed and co-written by Roger Dodger wunderkind Dylan Kidd and adapted from a novel by Helen Schulman), if you bear a resemblance to and take the same name of your admissions director's first love, then let her shag you on a sofa, there is a home for you at Columbia University. This premise inevitably raises some serious questions about power abuse and merit, but p.s. is not about issuing answers. In fact, it prompts new and annoying questions like, “What is Marcia Gay Harden doing here?”

Laura Linney and Topher Grace
Laura Linney and Topher Grace star in p.s.

P.s. opens with a shot of an abstract, blue painting on an apartment wall (in other words, whoever lives here is secretly very sad and not living in reality). The painting belongs to Louise Harrington (Laura Linney). A Columbia alumnus, Louise is now the Director of Admissions for the School of Fine Arts. She is pretty, sharp, and self-deprecating. She spends her work day quietly looking over application portfolios, and punctuates it with a lunch break with her ex-husband and ex-professor, Peter (Gabriel Byrne), and a phone call from her shallow best friend, Missy (Marcia Gay Harden). Missy lives in California, the dwelling place of all people without substance. Louise pops by her mother's house from time to time for guilt and judgment, where she runs into her brother, Sammy (Paul Rudd), a financial broker and recovering drug addict.

Louise's life is lonely and idle, until she receives a handwritten MFA application from F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace). Louise immediately recalls her high school boyfriend, Scott Feinstadt, a painter killed in a car accident years earlier. She tears the letter open, and is astonished at their similar backgrounds and philosophies. Louise arranges an interview with the arrogant and funny kid, and pours over sketches of her long lost love.

F. Scott casually strolls into his interview late and poorly dressed. “Sorry, I totally fucked up on the subway,” he explains. Louise quivers in her teeny, tiny dress—the two boys look identical. After glancing at his slides (which are quite good), Louise assures F. Scott of his great promise. Then, she takes the kid home and pounces on him (in a refreshingly realistic and awkward scene done in real time—kudos to both actors). Of course, F. Scott has no idea why this is happening. He observes the moment with , “That was fucking awesome,” and “I'm really digging this executive recruitment thing.”

As the two begin dating, F. Scott falls for Louise. But she remains closed off. Oh, not because of her position or her integrity, or even the supernatural aspect (which Kidd is wise to play down), but because Louise is a grief hound who cannot experience “good things.” Peter adds to her angst by confessing a sexual addiction that led him to cheat on her during their marriage with hundreds of female (and a few male) students.

In character studies, you expect to see people go through conflict and then change. In this respect, Louise, F. Scott, and Peter are great characters. However, during the third act, Kidd lays Missy (Gay Harden) on us. Written like a character out of The First Wives Club , Missy (who also had a relationship with the late Scott Feinstadt) flies to New York to see and sample this F. Scott kid for herself. Just like old times, the two bicker over the boy in an absurd scene. The film would have completely derailed here, but Louise and F. Scott's final interactions save it.

Not surprisingly, the greatest thing about p.s. is the onscreen match of Linney and Grace. The two have a palpable chemistry, and play off of each other well in intimate and comical scenes. Grace gives an impressively nuanced performance. Rather than the stock vocal stammer or Benjamin Braddock sniffle affect, he uses his eyes to communicate his character's emotions. You know when F. Scott is frightened behind his bravado, confident behind his uneasiness, or just psyched because he found the world's most elusive loophole into the cognitive elite.

Despite its academic climate, you will leave p.s. knowing nothing new. Humans are flawed. Recovery is good. Laura Linney is a magnificent actress. Topher Grace is to Ashton Kutcher what Matt Damon is to Ben Affleck. And although Kidd can spot a novel situation, p.s. suffers from literary adaptation syndrome (where characters who might work in a novel ruin the film, and questions a novel might address are ignored onscreen). Still, I view the director's second feature attempt as a decent one. Perhaps it's my nature, but I'm not giving up on the Kidd.

Review © October 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Newmarket Films. All Rights Reserved.

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