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Linney Aged

An older woman calls the shots on romance in Dylan Kidd's 'P.S.'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S PROBABLY crass to mention that a movie has a particularly good sex scene, but P.S. certainly does. Constant moviegoers know that a first-class sex scene is rare. There is no easier way to risk your revenues than doing something that the moms and dads at the MPAA are afraid of, earning your film an R rating, and making it fiscally scary to play and advertise.

Often, when an actor and actress are pantomiming sex, the camera never knows when to pull back. How many times has it happened that the actress seems to be stifling embarrassment or that the essential goofiness of the situation is apparent even to the actor? In P.S., by director Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger), Laura Linney plays Louise, a New York woman on the cusp of 40, who has been doing without love for years. Early in the film, she seduces a young man who is about half her age, over a couple of scarcely touched glasses of wine.

The camera gets in and stays where it belongs in such a moment of intimacy: right on her face. She is a little flushed, but she half-orders the young man to get the contraception ready. ("Do you have something? Get it.") Linney's not a strong-looking actress. At close range, she seems slight, pale and reddish-blonde, and blonde ages harder and faster than any other color.

Linney is so interesting because she has firmness under her delicacy. Here, she summons brusqueness like a real New Yorker. She tells Scott to get a condom, more sharply the second time, because he's so fogged with lust he doesn't respond the first time. A really good sex scene reinforces the naturalism in this aspect of storytelling. In depicting all aspects of human behavior, actors must needs be the mirror of life. Anyway, it is hot.

The film is based on Helen Schulman's too-thin and too-rich hair-dryer novel, a bred-in-Larchmont book typical of 1990s Manhattan romance, avant bin Laden. Louise works the admissions desk at the visual arts department at Columbia University. One afternoon, she receives an application from a student named F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace).

"Scott Feinstadt" is exactly the same name as the love of Louise's life. A cool and popular art student, he had always had the emotional edge on Louise, and he was killed in a car wreck in his late teens. The new Scott—a sweet but breezy young man, used to things going his way—looks exactly like the dead one.

The best line in Being Julia has an aging actress telling a friend about a love story between a young man and an older woman, and he answers, "Oh, you mean a farce." Louise takes the situation very seriously. Her potential for being hurt is increased by her ossified relationship with her ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne). They are amicably separated, but he still possesses the ability to ruin her day.

When it looks as if everything is going smoothly, a new speed bump arrives in the person of Missy (Marcia Gay Harden). She is an alleged best friend and rival who has stolen boys from Louise in the past.

Missy is a coarse, cackling presence over the phone, demanding sordid details of Louise's affair. She turns up from L.A., without warning, in a midtown hotel suite. Harden lolls about in a negligee; she's postpartum or pre-partum, but either way partum, and she makes this melony quality highly alarming. Harden's insistence on Joan Collinsing the part returns this often classy movie to its basis as the kind of fiction found in Cosmopolitan.

Ultimately, P.S. is an example of a major actress in a minor movie. But the actress is major. Linney has another huge scene, when Louise tries—brutally—to get past F. Scott's self-confidence. She poses him in front of a mirror and leads him to imagine what it feels like to get up one morning, middle-aged, with a deteriorating body and the hot-shot student days long gone. She gives Scott both barrels, this callow art student for whom everything had been a breeze up until now. It's a painful scene, and there are a hundred ways it could go wrong. As Linney plays it, you hold your breath; she doesn't soften it, or spare us its ugliness and resentment, and yet we never lose sight of the fact that she's doing this too-cocky kid a harsh favor.

Despite Linney's bravery, the rigging in the plot shows. Even if Linney earns an upbeat ending with her extraordinary performance, the ending seems written as if it were an afterthought.

P.S. (R; 105 min.), directed by Dylan Kidd, written by Kidd and Helen Schulman, based on the novel by Schulman, photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay and starring Laura Linney and Topher Grace, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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