Two years ago, the writer-director Dylan Kidd made a crunchily acerbic debut with Roger Dodger. The movie wasn’t perfection, but it was smart, and literate, and pleasingly vicious. At the time, I compared Roger Dodger to Albee; in retrospect, the movie feels more like Dorothy Parker’s ghost shot through Dylan Kidd’s hands. It even opened with a roundtable of sorts, albeit with only one bon vivant: Campbell Scott as the brutally incisive title character, holding forth in hypnotically savvy chatter. True, the film fell apart at the end, despite all the snappy dialogue, the brilliant performances, the dazzling prism of city lights as lensed by cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay. The brothel sequence was senseless, and the Midwestern coda, somewhat redeemed by slick editing, wanted to tidy up, to reconcile, rather than leave the characters in their unholy messes where they belonged.

Fewer things would gratify me more than to report that Kidd’s new film, p.s., fulfills the promise of his first. The director collaborated on his screenplay this time, with Helen Schulman, adapting the movie from her novel. Kidd’s lapidary bitterness and Schulman’s soft, floral sensibility don’t merge. Worse, Kidd’s impulse to resolve his characters’ torments rears up here, too, which results in an ending so falsely upbeat I’d swear the projectionist had started beaming the Lifetime channel. Shafts of sunlight and boxy, poppy flute music signal that all will be OK, that we are moving on in the healing process. Why do the people we’re watching have to learn from their mistakes, or to learn from them with such perfunctory neatness? It might make Kidd and Schulman feel better, this cinematic tying of bows and satins about the world, but it’s poor drama.

Before the amends-making session that finishes p.s. (literally, figuratively), there’s Laura Linney, as the movie’s heroine, giving a superb performance. I’ve loved Linney ever since the first Tales of the City, and I’ve longed for her to have the kinds of roles on screen that do justice to her talent. Her bad girl Bertha Dorset was the best thing about The House of Mirth and I’m glad that Linney received so much recognition for You Can Count on Me, even though I found the movie lacking.

If posterity remembers p.s. for anything, it will be for a scene played in front of a mirror, a scene of stunning cruelty. Linney’s character Louise works as an admissions counselor at Columbia. A day after she impetuously launches an affair with an MFA applicant (because the boy resembles her long-dead childhood sweetheart, who was also a painter), she asks her young lover, “Shall we play a game?”

Louise stands behind Scott (Topher Grace) as he faces her full-length bedroom mirror. “Imagine you’re 40, and you’re a failure as an artist,” she begins her twist-the-knife fantasy of what-if. She cautions against dying young, because then “you skip out on all the humiliations life had planned for you.” The boy, with his heavy-lidded eyes, who prances about in the nude at her command, of course doesn’t know that he has the same name and face as Louise’s Scott from 20 years ago, and he can’t possibly know that she’s venting her anger at a dead man. He looks “newly intoxicated with the wonders of the universe,” as someone says of eager, youthful college students in an earlier moment, and thus he stands there, not saying much, simply taking in the projections of a sad, lonely woman.

It’s this scene that stirringly reconfigures the outlook of Roger Dodger, an equivalent to Roger’s casual, sportsmanlike vivisections of the female psyche. p.s. could use much more of this bite. Instead, we have a “nice” movie, and I cannot believe that Kidd wants to squander his talent on something as jejune as tasteful, middle-class values. No one else in movies right now has his vernacular gift for combining wit and truth, and if he doesn’t care about that, doesn’t nurture and honor it, will anyone?

Also on the negative side, Paul Rudd appears as Louise’s brother in a couple of scenes; Baca-Asay shoots close-ups of Rudd’s long, horsey face in the dead center of the frame—a huge mistake. And Marcia Gay Harden ratchets up another notch in her growing (I almost typed “growling”) list of banal performances. In the four short years since her masterly work in Pollack, she has become a horror on the disorder of Shelley Winters. As Louise’s rather treacherous best friend “Missy,” Harden squeaks by in an oversexed Minnie Mouse persona that’s as unreal as Linney is authentic. She isn’t quite as bad as she was in John Sayles’ Casa de Los Babys last year; Harden’s camp mannerisms, however, feel dried up, and why does she insist on/why do directors let her get away with being camp anyhow? – NPT

October 9, 2004