Call it the Attack of the Clones: every now and again, there will be a rush of movies featuring curiously similar storylines, a phenomenon that usually afflicts big studio pictures but can hit the indies with equal virulence. Sometimes it's clearly deliberate, as studios get word a project is in the works and they rush their own copycat movies into production. Other times it's apparently just an inexplicable coincidence and a lot of people around Hollywood have independently had the same idea. In the '80s, we had a seemingly endless supply of comedy/fantasies about young people mystically trading their souls with their older relatives—among them, 18 Again; Vice Versa; and Like Father, Like Son. In the mid-'90s, we had I Shot Andy Warhol and Basquiat, dueling biopics about people who were peripheral oddballs in Warhol's social circle. The new century began with an absolute juggernaut of art-house pictures about pretty but troubled teenage girls having strange, intense flirtations with lumpy, embittered, middle-aged guys: Ghost World; Panic; My First Mister; and even a new version of the kinky granddaddy of the genre, Lolita.
Right now audiences are experiencing perhaps the strangest example of the clone-plot phenomenon yet: Birth and P.S., dueling pictures about women unhappily on the cusp of middle age who encounter kids whom they suspect to be the reincarnations of their dead lovers. Interestingly, despite their similar subject matter, the two films could hardly be less alike in other regards: Birth is a dark, supernatural drama that notoriously features superstar Nicole Kidman sharing a tub with a 10-year-old boy; P.S. is a far lighter picture, a romantic mystery/comedy with a tinge of the goofy about it, in which not-quite-a-superstar Laura Linney enjoys sloppy sex with a teenaged (but legal) Topher Grace. Birth is almost inarguably the superior picture of the pair, but P.S. is more fun and infinitely less creepy.
Linney stars as Louise Harrington, a 39-year-old divorcee who begins the film peering into a mirror, glumly appraising the ravages of time. (Sure, by any rational standard, Linney looks fantastic, but for the purposes of our narrative, she's a fading flower.) She works as a Columbia college admissions officer, and every day, she is confronted by taut, bouncy, mindlessly smug youth. Her life is stagnating terribly until the day when she encounters prospective student F. Scott Feinstadt (Grace), a boy with the same face and very nearly the same name as the dead lover Louise has never gotten over. Before their admissions interview is over, Louise tumbles into bed with Scott, and tumbles is the word: their sex is passionate but wonderfully fumbly and awkward, the kind of real, unglamorized but still sexy sex we see all too rarely in the movies. And then, still tingly and aglow from this new, May/September romance, Louise begins trying to figure out what the heck is going on here: Is Scott indeed her dead love reborn? And whether he is or not, can she possibly have a future with a guy who was in diapers when she was in college?
For years, Linney has been a reliable supporting player in pictures such as Love Actually and Mystic River, but here she has to carry the lead, playing a tricky mix of neurotic, frumpy and hot. She pulls it off, mostly, although she's still getting used to this leading-lady thing and she seems far more natural in her scenes with Grace than she does flying solo. Grace is apparently a cast member of That '70s Show, but try not to hold that against him; his role is in some ways even trickier than Linney's, as he must come across as a cheerfully horny young lunk (he proclaims their first shag "awesome!"), but at the same time, he must remain mysterious enough to keep Linney—and the audience—guessing as to his true nature and intentions.
The genuine chemistry these two enjoy gets us through the occasional bit of iffy plotting; this is the kind of film where you can't help but play amateur editor, thinking to yourself, "This picture would work a lot better if they cut that last scene; this part's good, but all that stuff with Marcia Gay Harden belongs in some whole other movie." It is not, in other words, an instant classic, but in these blighted days of prettified, replicant romantic comedy, it's a refreshing change to see a film with some emotional honesty and human sloppiness in the mix. It's a proud addition to the "woman falls for a kid who is maybe her reincarnated lover" genre, and the lack of tub scenes featuring 10-year-old boys is much appreciated.
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P.S. WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY DYLAN KIDD; PRODUCED BY ANNE CHAISSON, JOHN HART, ROBERT KESSEL AND JEFF SHARP; AND STARS LAURA LINNEY, TOPHER GRACE AND MARCIA GAY HARDEN. NOW PLAYING AT CENTURY STADIUM, ORANGE; MANN RANCHO NIGUEL, LAGUNA NIGUEL.