(2004), Dylan Kidd's directorial follow-up to Rodger Dodger
(2002) starring Laura Linney as a middle-aged Columbia University admissions director who has an affair with a prospective student, is a dark romantic comedy that observes Linney's quest to repair the broken trust and alienation of middle-age melancholy brought on by divorce, distant relationships with family, a lack of meaningful friendships, an unchallenging professional career, and the sober realization that her dreams are slowly slipping through her fingers. In many ways, Linney's character parallels Campbell Scott's character in Rodger Dodger
, a cynical hardened player who claims a mastery of women but who's incapable of achieving any kind of intimacy or human connection in his life.
Linney's journey is triggered by an impulsive, passionate affair with a much younger man (Topher Grace) who mystically evokes an old boyfriend, her first love, who was tragically killed in a car accident. Her intense desire to reach back to an ideal vision of love and comfort during a time of unhappiness is familiar. How often have we returned to the arms of an old lover, or fantasized about tracking down a long-lost high school sweetheart, when life has cut us to the bone?
Kidd and co-screenwriter Helen Schulman (who also wrote the novel the film is adapted from) invert the rom-com formula by giving the girl the guy up front and then
putting the girl through the ringer. And boy, is Linney put through the ringer. NY Times
film critic Manohla Dargis tore P.S. to shreds
in a savage review, accusing the filmmakers of holding Linney's character in contempt and slogging out the worst kind of female stereotypes ("excremental nonsense"). I don't believe that myself, but some of the transgressions against Linney's character certainly border the extreme, especially the wild, deeply wounding confessions of betrayal by her ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne) and a best friend (Marcia Gay Harden) who's an untrustworthy man-(boy?)-stealer.
It was Linney and Harden's relationship that intrigued me most about P.S.
. The idea of a best friend who can't be trusted is foreign to me (and probably to most men), and the dynamic between these characters is complicated and difficult to decipher. Clearly a strong bond informed by common experiences and decades of friendship exists between these women — but not when it comes to men. That cloud of suspicion is a given in their relationship (and always has been), but among the distrust there seems to be an underlying acceptance of Harden's treachery as a character flaw that enables her to behave badly and ultimately be forgiven for it. As a guy, it's impossible to fathom forgiving a best friend who stole a girl behind your back. Deep male friendships are firmly grounded in trust and an unspoken bond of "I've got your back, you've got mine." In the (rare) instances that this trust is violated, there's no chance in hell of the friendship continuing. The inexplicable (and illogical!) opposite dynamic in female relationships fascinates me. I asked my viewing companion if she has female friends she can't trust, and if she thought this aspect of P.S.
was realistic. Interestingly, she said yes on both counts.
While I enjoyed P.S.
, it never quite reaches the level of poignancy that Kidd attains in Rodger Dodger
. As I inch towards my own inevitable midlife crisis, these kinds of stories usually hit me hard in the gut. The emotion I felt from this story came more from the excellent performances of Linney and Topher Grace than the tumult of the narrative. Even when they don't quite succeed and fire on all cylinders, it's a pleasure to experience character-driven dramas about complex, experienced middle-aged women instead of the bland cute-ingénue-with-boy-problems staple of the Hollywood studio system.